The International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) was established by Canon L John Collins of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1956. Its mission was to work towards a peaceful solution to the problem of apartheid through raising and distributing funding to victims of apartheid laws, especially political prisoners and their families. It was in the trials of anti-apartheid activists that the fund’s most significant contribution was made. IDAF paid for the legal defence of hundreds of people accused of trying to bring down apartheid and also supported their families even after some of them were imprisoned. IDAF developed a substantial research facility that made information about apartheid readily accessible for the international public, especially for organisations working to dismantle the system of apartheid such as the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid.

What became the IDAF in 1956 in fact had precursors, in groups that began funding political prisoners in 1952 during the Defiance Campaign. Collins was in South Africa during this period, and met with Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and other leaders.

Despite its close links to the African National Congress (ANC), the Fund from the beginning stuck to its principles: non-partisanship; non-interference with the liberation movements; non-campaigning; and a commitment to non-racialism. Furthermore, it set goals for itself credible leadership; United Nations (UN) accreditation; a regional approach and securing access to lawyers.

The Treason Trial

When 156 leaders of the ANC and allied organisations were arrested on 5 December 1956, Canon Collins received a request for help from the Bishop of Johannesburg, Ambrose Reeves. Collins, who headed the organisation called Christian Action, assured Reeves that he would raise money for the forthcoming trial. Reeves set up a Treason Trial Fund inside South Africa to raise money and established a committee to administer the process. Members of various communities and various organisations also organised funding, food, legal help and other modes of support for the detainees. According to Mary Benson, ‘Liberals, Christians and socialists came together in organising the Treason Trial Defence Fund.’

The accused in the 1956 Treason Trial outside the court. Photographer: Peter Magubane. Source: Africa Media Online

The 156 accused were put on trial, and Collins insisted that only the best and most progressive lawyers were to be brought into the defence team: Adv Vernon Barrange, attorney Michael Partington, advocate I.A Maisels (QC), Bram Fischer (QC), Sydney Kentridge and Charlie Nicholas. Following the preparatory examination, which lasted until January 1958, charges were dropped against 65 of the accused – the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence for the case against these accused.  

As the trial dragged on, it became clear to Reeves that the episode was merely the first of many trials that would follow, and he asked Collins to organise a more permanent structure to defend political prisoners. Collins responded by establishing the British Defence and Aid Fund, under the umbrella of Christian Action.

When new Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd  deposed a chief in 1959 in Sekhukhuneland in the Eastern Transvaal, and installed his own puppet, an uprising ensued, and police moved in to suppress the disturbance. Hundreds were arrested and put on trial,  David Soggot a lawyer funded by IDAF defended the accused.

A short while later, on 21 March 1960, the Sharpeville Massacre took place when the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) organised a protest against apartheid laws, and Defence & Aid supported the families of many of the victims of the tragedy. Lawyers were also despatched to defend those put on trial as a result of the state crackdown following the uprising. Collins set up a commission of inquiry into the killings and put Sydney Kentridge in charge of the process.

After the Treason Trial

The Treason Trial ended on 29 March 1961, a year after Sharpeville. The accused were found not guilty and discharged. While IDAF had backed the winning side, Collins and his colleagues knew that more trials and tribulations were in the offing, and they began to internationalise the fund. They held a jazz concert – starring Johnny Dankworth and Humphrey Littleton, with jazz great Lionel Hampton featuring as a special guest star – to raise funds and draw attention to the struggle against apartheid. They began to get aid from church organisations in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Sweden, among others.

IDAF appointed an observer, Gerald Gardiner, to monitor and report on the Treason Trial, anticipating that a legal heavyweight was needed to draw attention to the legal atrocities taking place in South Africa. An eminent Labour barrister, Gardiner drew attention to the plight of political prisoners in South Africa.

With the banning of the ANC and PAC and the subsequent state of emergency, in which more than 10,000 people were detained, the IDAF had its work cut out for it and began organising aid for the many in need of it.

With the passing of the Sabotage Act in 1962, hundreds of anti apartheid activists were arrested and charged, and some 5,000 were imprisoned during this period. The IDAF stretched the resources of the fund and financed the defence of many of these detainees, as well as supporting their families. In late 1963 hundreds of members of the armed wing of the PAC, Poqo, were held in prison after the state refused to grant them bail, but IDAF lawyers managed to secure bail conditions for many of them.

In late 1964, after a 21-month trial, IDAF lawyers were able to get 39 of 44 of the accused in the Cape Town Goodwood case freed. In the Eastern Cape, IDAF’s legal fees amounted to a massive £12,500 for the year, especially since many activists were charged twice for the same offence. In one example, in a Graaff-Reinet court, Winnard Mati was sentenced to 30 months in prison for being a member of the ANC. A few months before his release, Mati and three others were brought to a court in Humansdorp and charged with ’soliciting subscriptions’ and ‘allowing his home to be used for meetings’. He was sentenced to 54 months on Robben Island. On appeal in the Supreme Court, his sentence was reduced to three years, and he was released a month later, having already served the three-year term. IDAF took up a string of such cases, and got the sentences of 158 men reduced, keeping them out of prison for a total of 258 years.

Rivonia, the IDAF’s second major challenge

On 11 July 1963, seven men were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg. Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Raymond Mhlaba, Dennis Goldberg and Rusty Bernstein were arrested and accused of conspiring to violently overthrow the state. Nelson Mandela, already serving a sentence on a lesser charge, was included among the accused and brought from Robben Island to face trial.

Arthur Chaskalson was part of the Rivonia Trial defence team of lawyers paid by IDAF.

The prosecution, in what became known as the Rivonia Trial, was led by the deputy attorney general of the Transvaal, Percy Yutar, a high-powered choice. The defence was led by Bram Fischer, with a team including George Bizos, Vernon Barrange and Arthur Chaskalson. The lawyers agreed to work for 20 percent of their normal fees, and IDAF covered the rest of the costs for the defence and support the families of the accused.

The case revolved around Operation Mayibuye, a draft plan for the organisation of a national uprising and guerrilla warfare, the defence arguing that the plan had been discussed but not adopted, the state arguing that it had indeed been adopted. It was during this trial that Mandela made his famous defence of the ANC’s policies.

During questioning, a rabid Yutar failed to prove his case, especially regarding the waging of guerrilla warfare, but he tried to use the trial proceedings as an intelligence gathering exercise for the benefit of the security forces. In one instance he tried to extract agreement that IDAF was supporting saboteurs and sabotage, revealing the government’s attitude towards the fund. The eight were all found guilty of conspiracy to commit treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.

But other trials were also underway, including: the ‘Little Rivonia trial’, in which Wilton Mkwayi, SR ‘Mac’ Maharaj and others were accused; the trials of Billy Nair and Harry Gwala in Pietermaritzburg; the African Resistance Movement trials in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and the trial of Hugh Lewin, Eddie Daniels and Tony Trew, among others.

International outreach, UN partnership

While most of the early 1960s trials were indirectly funded by Canon Collins in the UK, the requests for funding were relayed via local South African branches of the organisation. The fund anticipated that it would be banned in South Africa, and established branches in Sweden, Norway, Australia and Switzerland. Representatives of the various branches met in London on 24 June 1964 and launched the international umbrella organisation, soon after named the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF). With the help of ES Reddy, the principal secretary of the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid, Collins secured funding from many countries, as well as other sources. In December 1963, Reddy managed to get a resolution passed in the UN General Assembly pledging to provide humanitarian assistance to South Africa’s political prisoners.

As a result of these efforts, in January 1965 Sweden donated $200,000 to be shared between the World Council of Churches and IDAF. Reddy invited Collins to address the Special Committee Against Apartheid in June 1965, and by November further pledges from 10 governments amounted to $95,000. Reddy set up the UN Trust Fund in 1966, using most of the money to support IDAF.

Banned in South Africa: security and dirty tricks

On 18 March 1966, after 10 years of working to support the liberation movements inside the country, the South African chapter of Defence and Aid was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, and it became an offence for anyone to receive funds – for any reason – from the organisation.

The international fund based in the UK now began to reorganise itself, including its method of getting money to activists or their families. It defined its various activities and created three programmes into which all its activities fell: Programme 1 would focus on political trials and secure funding for legal defence; Programme 2 would take care of the needs of the families of political prisoners; and Programme 3 would constitute the research and publications departments of the fund.

Additionally, the fund became a UK-based organisation, and with the help of exiled South African lawyer Neville Rubin, established several bodies to effect these money transfers:

1.      The Freedom From Fear International Charitable Foundation.

2.      The Freedom From Hunger International Charitable Foundation.

3.      The Freedom From Hardship International Trust.

Phyllis Altman, an activist who belonged to the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), arrived in London in 1966 and became the general secretary of projects under Programme 1.

The new arrangements involved a circuitous method of getting the money to those who needed it: first, secret meetings would be held between Canon Collins, Phyllis Altman and Neville Rubin; then the law firm Birkbeck Montagu’s was contacted. Since they had previously acted for IDAF, they in turn contacted another firm not associated with the fund, which would forward the money to another law firm in South Arica, which would pass on money to legal defence teams or to families of political prisoners.

Phyllis Altman would scan the South African newspapers and gather information from the ANC and PAC to identify recipients who were put on trial, a function later taken on by IDAF’s Research and Information Department on a full-time basis.

As general secretary of the UK-based IDAF, and one of Altman’s first tasks was to beef up security, since the files of the fund would leave activists and supporters vulnerable to prosecution and arrest if they fell into the hands of South African security forces.

The fund devised elaborate methods to disguise its operations, since staffers were certain that their phones had been bugged, and they avoided naming people in telephone conversations, creating codenames and pseudonyms to prevent detection. They also used nondescript venues to conduct operations and store information, avoiding the use of their offices at 104 Newgate Street in London. Cannon Collins’ home at 2 Amen Court, next to St Paul’s Cathedral, was used as a safe venue, since it was heavily protected by the Cathedral’s security staff.

Later, when IDAF was based at Canon Collins House at 64 Essex Road, security was arranged in such a manner that it became more rigorous as one moved higher up in the building: the research departments on the first two floors were secured, but the upper levels – where secret operations were based – enjoyed even more rigorous security.

IDAF lawyers, assassinations

These measures were especially important after South Africa developed a ‘dirty tricks’ department which used letter bombs and other devices to disrupt anti-apartheid activity. In one instance, IDAF conduits Phyllis Naidoo and Father John Osmers were severely injured by a letter bomb sent to them in Lesotho in 1979.

Dulcie September, a member of the ANC, worked for IDAF.

The next year, in 1980, the Publications Department at 104 Newgate Street was burgled, and a new security system was installed. But more serious violations were to follow. Dulcie September, a member of IDAF and later an ANC representative, was shot and killed in Paris in March 1988.

The IDAF was heavily reliant on volunteers, but after one student was seen walking in Harare (then Salisbury, Rhodesia), after he had informed the staff that he was on holiday in Europe (even sending the IDAF postcards from his ‘holiday route’), the fund further tightened up security.

Lawyers representing political prisoners inside South Africa, who were funded by IDAF, were also targeted. Griffiths Mxenge, who had been defending a series of political prisoners in the Eastern Cape, was brutally killed and dismembered on 19 November 1981. The police claimed that he had been killed by the ANC, a charge vehemently denied by his wife, Victoria Mxenge. The ANC issued a statement from Lusaka denying involvement in his death, and praised his contribution to the struggle.

Victoria Mxenge, who had qualified as a lawyer in the same year, took over her husband’s practice and continued to defend activists, and was part of the defence team in the 1984 treason trial. She, too, was murdered by apartheid agents  – in front of her children – on 1 August 1985, just days after delivering a speech at a funeral for the Cradock Four (Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto, Sicelo Mhlauli, and Matthew Goniwe).

The Craig Williamson Episode

While brutal tactics failed to stop the fund from continuing with its activities, one devastating episode threatened to plunge IDAF into a crisis when Craig Williamson, a South African spy, infiltrated the organisation.

Craig Williamson the apartheid spy who infiltrated IDAF. Goodman Gallery

Craig Williamson was groomed by the South African security agencies to infiltrate anti-apartheid organisations in the 1970s. Williamson joined NUSAS and became a super-efficient student activist, so much so that he raised suspicion among some anti-apartheid activists, such as Cedric de Beer.

Williamson ‘went into exile’ during the 1976 Soweto unrest, crossing the border into Botswana. He made contact with the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF), based in the Swiss capital Geneva.

The IUEF received money from Sweden to disburse to students escaping from oppressive regimes throughout the world, and was run by Lars-Gunnar Erikson, a figure regarded with suspicion by many who thought Erikson was a CIA agent.

Erikson adopted the ‘exiled’ Williamson and made him a key player in the IUEF, appointing him deputy director, a post that gave him control of a huge fund. Williamson approached the ANC to help them fund students from South Africa, and he ingratiated himself into ANC circles.

Williamson then approached IDAF, with a string of testimonials indicating that he was part of the liberation struggle. The IDAF, facing a deluge as more and more political trials – related to the Soweto unrest, the rise and fall of Black Consciousness and the persecution of emerging trade union activists – was in need of more funding and support. Williamson presented himself and the IUEF as the saviour in a time of need.

Despite suspicions – Phyllis Altman in particular was instinctively convinced that Williamson was a spy – Williamson managed to secure a meeting with Canon Collins. Williamson and Erikson set up Foundation for the Relief and Education of Exiles (FREE), which would ostensibly help IDAF with funding. Erikson and Collins were appointed co-chairs of FREE.

Behind the friendly overtures Williamson and Erikson wanted to take over the IDAF, and Phyllis Altman intuited their ‘friendly takeover’. But it was only after Horst Kleinschmidt found out from NUSAS leader Cedric de Beer that Williamson was an agent, that action could be taken.

De Beer, during Williamson’s NUSAS days, was suspicious, and followed him for 24 hours. He saw Williamson going into the Hillbrow police station twice in this period, and found other aspects that pointed to the truth. De Beer conveyed his evidence to Kleinschmidt who informed the ANC, but not everyone was convinced by Kleinschmidt’s allegations. At a meeting with the ANC, Kleinschmidt was asked to recuse himself because Williamson was uncomfortable in his presence, and Erikson threatened Kleinschmidt, telling him that if he persisted with his allegations he would not get a scholarship and life would become very difficult for him in other ways as well.

Despite these revelations, Williamson and Erikson alleged that IDAF was funding trials already paid for by the IUEF, implying that IDAF was involved in some form of corruption. In fact, the IUEF sent funds to some of the IDAF beneficiaries to make their charges stick. The Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) became suspicious, and held meetings with IUEF and IDAF to clarify the situation, presented by Williamson as ‘rivalry’ between the two organisations. Williamson implied that IDAF would not open its financial records to scrutiny, and the Danes were to some extent convinced by this charge.

IDAF found that Williamson had spread this rumour as fact, and UK Labour government minister Judith Hart turned down IDAF’s request for funds on the grounds that IUEF was the more experienced and better organised agency and was more deserving of government support.

Eventually, Williamson’s fellow spy, Arthur McGiven, revealed apartheid’s covert activities in a story published in the Observer. A little later, Erikson admitted to all the charges, and the game was up.

When the IUEF accounts came under scrutiny, shocking abuse came to light, money having been spent on casino outings, secret camps inside South Africa (headed by Williamson), and even a ‘donation’ to Judith Hart, who was out of a job after Labour lost the election in 1979. The IUEF did not survive the episode, and shut up shop by 1981.

The Post-Collins period

Cannon Collins died on New Year’s Eve, 31 December 1982. His funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral was attended by many, including Oliver Tambo, who considered himself Collins his ‘eldest son’. Canon Collins was buried at a crypt at St Paul’s.

At his memorial, held a few weeks later, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston delivered a sermon after travelling to London from Mauritius. Huddleston became the new director of IDAF, which was now presided over by the International Council of Trustees.

Phyllis Altman directed the organisation, which moved to new premises at Canon Collins House, 64 Essex Road in Islington, London. With the reorganised IDAF firmly established, Altman retired, and was succeeded by Horst Kleinschmidt, who ran the fund until it was dissolved following the fall of apartheid. Maud Henry became the financial officer. This version of IDAF became a tighter organisation, more responsive and effective in the final push against apartheid.

Hostility from the PAC

While the IDAF had particularly strong links with the ANC from the period of the Rivonia and Treason trials, the IDAF held fast to its principle of non-partisanship, and provided funding for political prisoners from various organisations, including the PAC. But the two organisations had a stormy relationship.

The PAC’s Africanist stance was at odds with the IDAF’s non-racial policy, and its willingness to use violence in its struggle against apartheid was especially difficult for the fund to accept – in 1963 the PAC’s armed wing, Poqo, mounted several attacks: against white holiday makers at Bashee Bridge, as well as against chiefs the Africanists saw as collaborators. The PAC’s anti-communism was also not in line with the fund’s more open relation to all the forces opposed to apartheid.

Despite these differences, the IDAF continued to provide funds for the legal costs of PAC activists on trial, but it did not donate funds to the PAC for political work. The PAC accused the IDAF of not helping the organisation, in pamphlets and through other indirect means. In 1965, PAC treasurer-general AB Ngcobo repeated the complaint with the UN’s Special Committee Against Apartheid. In the investigation that followed, it was found that more PAC members were being funded by the IDAF than any other organisation. When the PAC complained that the IDAF was not providing funds to help the family of PAC leader Robert Sobukwe, it emerged that the PAC’s London office had never made a request for funds.

In the early 1980s, Ngila Michael Muendane, a former PAC representative in London, circulated a pamphlet alleging that IDAF director Horst Kleinschmidt was, like Craig Williamson, a South African spy – on the basis that the two were at Wits University at the same time. Muendane also alleged that lawyers fighting cases in South Africa were not being paid adequately, despite the fact that he knew that many PAC activists and their families were being supported by the fund.

The worst example of PAC hostility came when the organisation convinced Joyce Mokhesi, the sister of Francis Mokhesi, one of the Sharpeville Six, to address the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid on the occasion of the UN Day of Political Prisoners. Joyce Mokhesi claimed that the IDAF was not supporting the six, and that it should be investigated. The charge was a complete fabrication, as IDAF had in fact been providing funding for the six as well as their families.

It fell to Horst Kleinschmidt to fly to New York to present evidence to the committee of IDAF’s support for the Sharpeville Six, as well as for Zeph Mothopeng and his family. Despite this presentation, the PAC continued to level the charges when it got Julia Ramashamola – the mother of Theresa Ramashamola, also one of the Sharpeville Six – to repeat the charges in Europe. The IDAF took Julia Ramashamola to their offices and showed her documents – including letter of thanks from Julia herself – that proved that the IDAF had indeed been funding the six, including their families, and Julia herself.

Programme 3: Info against apartheid

The IDAF’s research programme was begun by Alex Hepple and his wife Girlie, who started compiling press clippings in the early 1960s. When they received funding from Sweden they were able to take on additional researchers and full-time staff, and developed a comprehensive research, information and publications unit.

A publication by IDAF

From 1973 onwards, the unit began focussing on prisons in South Africa, keeping track of detainees, and publicising issues such as torture. It began a partnership with the Anti-Apartheid Movement in an ongoing campaign, Southern Africa – The Imprisoned Society (SATIS). The unit also passed on its research to ES Reddy and his Special Committee Against Apartheid, which asked the IDAF to produce a survey of political imprisonment in South Africa to mark the UN’s Day of Solidarity with South African Political Prisoners on 11 October 1978. The result was Prisoners of Apartheid, a comprehensive list of all known political prisoners in South Africa, with brief biographies of each of the prisoners.

The Hepples also produced The South African Information Service Manual, a regular publication, together with more occasional pamphlets. When the Hepples retired in the early 1970s, Alan Brooks took over their functions, and he created a more efficient system for distributing the unit’s material, renaming the unit the Research, Information and Publications unit (RIP).  Hugh Lewin, a former political prisoner in South Africa, took over the distribution and design functions, and commissioned a series of photographers to brighten up the publications. The photographers, beginning with John Seymour, made secret trips to South Africa to capture scenes reflecting the realities of apartheid. Seymour was followed by Tony McGrath, who captured more images to add to the IDAF’s growing library of images. Later, Barry Feinberg added audio-visual material, including a documentary he made, called The Anvil and the Hammer, which won prizes at film festivals in London and Leipzig.

Brooks also produced Focus on Political Repression in South Africa, a bi-monthly journal, as well as a series of Fact Papers on various topics, such as workers’ issues and the politics of Rhodesia. When Tony Trew, another former political prisoner, took over from Brooks, they began to produce year-end compilations of documents produced during the year. Contributors to these publications included Albie Sachs, Ruth First, Tim Jenkin, Mary Benson and Hilda Bernstein, among others. Brooks also brought in people such as Mike Terry (who later became the AAM’s secretary), Margaret Ling, Barbara Konig, Jan Marsh, and Bruno da Ponte.

The unit produced a series of publications, including:

The Sun Will Rise, Statements from the Dock, by Mary Benson;

South Africa: The Imprisoned Society, by Allen Cook;

Nelson Mandela: The Struggle is my Life, by Mary Benson;

The Struggle for a Birthright, a history of the ANC by Mary Benson;

The Whirlwind Before the Storm, by Alan Brooks and Jeremy Brickhill;

Escape from Pretoria, by Tim Jenkin

Portugal’s Wars in Africa, by Ruth First (1971)

The Last to Leave: Portuguese Colonialism in Africa, by Bruno da Ponte (1974)

1980s: Resistance Intensifies, and legal bills mount

The decade beginning in 1980 saw resistance to apartheid become generalised throughout the country, with ever more individuals and organisations chipping away at the edifice of apartheid. The campaigns against the Tripartite Parliament, the burgeoning of the trade union movement, revolts against government appointed councillors and the protests that began in the Vaal Triangle pushed resistance to a level that could not be contained by the state’s security forces. With increased resistance came increased state repression, and more and more people were detained, put on trial, or killed.

In this phase, the IDAF had to ensure funding for more and more people on trial, as well as for the families of those detained. According to Al Cook, ‘In 1979, IDAF had defended a total of 297 people in 57 trials. In 1980 the Fund defended 2092 people in 130 trials. By the mid-1980s IDAF was getting 2,000 requests to fund trial defences annually.’

With the cost of trials rising from £1-million in the early 1980s to £5-million in the mid-80s, IDAF had to try to lower the costs of defence. The lawyer the IDAF tasked with distributing funding to defence lawyers in South Africa, Bill Frankel of the London law firm Birkbeck Montague’s, travelled to South Africa to convince defence lawyers to accept lower fees for trials.

Towards this end, Horst Kleinschmidt began to use smaller law firms, including black law firms, to represent detainees. One of the most prominent of these was run by Priscilla Jana, who represented countless political prisoners, among them Solomon Mahlangu. Others included Dumisa Ntsebenza, Linda Zama, Azhar Cachalia, Shan Chetty, Pius Langa, and Victoria and Griffiths Mxenge. White firms included Haysom, Cheadle and Thompson, and Raymond Tucker, but there were also many mixed firms, such as Smith, Tabata and Van Heerden.

Kleinschmidt initiated a more offensive approach to fighting apartheid, and the IDAF funded a hearing on behalf of the miners who died in the Kinross mining disaster.  The IDAF also supported Wendy Orr, a district surgeon who mounted an injunction against the Port Elizabeth security forces when she uncovered evidence of torture in the course of her duties. The lawyers got the state to compensate 82 plaintiffs.

IDAF went further and defended Ivan Toms in 1988 when he refused to serve in the SA Defence Force, which was mounting illegal campaigns in Namibia, Angola, and in South African townships. IDAF roped in legal authority Professor John Dugard to defend Toms, thus boosting the profile of the End Conscription Campaign.

With resistance mounting, and public anger directed towards apartheid functionaries, many collaborators were killed in mob violence. The state began using the doctrine of common purpose to prosecute people en bloc, finding even innocent bystanders guilty of crimes committed by groups of people.

The Sharpeville Six were prosecuted under this doctrine, as were Solomon Mahlangu and the Upington 14 (originally the Upington 25, before charges against 11 were dropped). IDAF was involved in all of these, including the last major trial, the Delmas trial.

The Delmas Trial

The Delmas trial, in which the indictment alone ran to 386 pages, took place from 1985 to 1989, taking a long time to reach its conclusion. The length of the trial meant that legal costs were high, lawyers having to pore over thousands of documents. Arthur Chaskalson and George Bizos were part of the defence legal team.

The Accused in the Delmas Treason Trial. Photographer: Gisele Wulfsohn. Permission: AfricaMediaOnline

The state, according to historian Gail Gerhart, wanted to ‘suppress the United Democratic Front’ (UDF), charging the 19 accused with murder and treason. Writing in the New York Times, Gerhart said: ‘State prosecutors, besides trying to attribute the violence of the revolt to the United Democratic Front, hoped to prove that the front was actually the internal wing of the revolutionary African National Congress and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Establishing the existence of links between them and the Front could have enabled the state to criminalise virtually any protest activity, no matter how non-violent, carried out under the UDF banner. Thus the stakes were high, both for the Front and for the individual defendants, all of who faced charges carrying a possible death sentence.’

Although UDF leaders Popo Molefe and Patrick ‘Terror’ Lekota were found guilty and sentenced to 10 and 12 years respectively, the judgement was rescinded on appeal, and all the defendants were freed on 15 December 1989 after spending four years and six months in jail.

The End of Apartheid and IDAF

With the end of the Delmas trial, just seven weeks before the unbanning of the liberation organisations and the release of Nelson Mandela and his fellow Rivonia trialists, the era of apartheid came to a close, and the IDAF found itself having to undergo a fundamental review of its reason for existing.

At its 1990 Annual Conference, held in Ottawa, Canada, the fund decided, after three days of deliberations, to bring the organisation to a close. At its final conference in London in May 1991, the IDAF reviewed its history, celebrated its history and achievements, and formally handed over its resources to organisations based in South Africa. Programme 1 was taken over by the new South African Legal Defence Fund (SALDEF), which would pursue trials still taking place ahead of the establishment of a democratic dispensation.

The work of Programme 2 was taken over by the Dependants’ Conference of the South African Council of Churches and the Association of Ex Political Prisoners (AEPP). Programme 3 was bequeathed to the Mayibuye Centre, an archive at the University of the Western Cape and by the newly formed Human Rights Commission.

The IDAF was formally dissolved at this final conference.

Conclusion: The Invisible Hand of the People’s Fund

Despite being one of the largest NGOs in the UK by the mid-1980s, the International Defence and Aid Fund played an invaluable role in sustaining the forces of resistance in the struggle to abolish apartheid. However, since its work was by its nature clandestine, few traces can be found of its extensive and far-reaching operations. But the fact that political prisoners were defended by lawyers and sometimes saved from the gallows, or that their sentences were reduced, and that their families were prevented from sinking into poverty, meant that this invisible agency was surreptitiously guiding these victims of apartheid to a fate easier to endure. Because the IDAF had to conceal its hand lest it be detected and halted in its tracks, the organisation has not been adequately represented in histories of the anti-apartheid struggle.

But the testimonies of lawyers of countless activists will bear witness to the fact that the struggle was funded by a beneficent organisation silently doing its work in London and elsewhere. They provided funding for the defence of the Treason Trialists, for the Rivonia Trialists, before doing the same for thousands of detainees, and funded the inquests into the deaths of Ahmed Timol, Steve Biko and Neil Agget.

Not only did they help detainees and their families, but they created a formidable library of the realities of apartheid that served to inform the policies of agencies such as the United Nations and the Anti-Apartheid Movement which steered history towards the demise of one of the most evil systems that took hold in the 20th century.

Oliver Tambo, in a letter to the UN Trust Fund for South Africa, written soon after the South African Defence and Aid Fund was banned, spelled out the essential support the fund was providing:

In the many years of persecution which our people have known, the Defence and Aid Fund has been a pillar of strength for them, not only because it openly and boldly proclaimed its opposition to apartheid and missed no opportunity in exposing its evils, using the testimony of the victims themselves. It continued to do this despite the sustained campaign of vile and vicious smearing and slander, initiated by the South African government and intended to alienate the support the Fund enjoyed from governments, influential bodies and leading personalities. The aim of the [smear] campaign was to deprive the victims of apartheid of one of the most effective channels of international support, while repressive measures were being intensified to break the morale and spirit of resistance of our people. With the international campaign against the Defence and Aid Fund failing to yield the desired results, the South African government banned South African Defence and Aid Fund, and used this fact to step up its attack on the International Defence and Aid Fund, claiming falsely that this fund is illegal”¦. We have been heartened to by the decision of the International Defence and Aid Fund to continue, as it is continuing to channel funds for the legal defence and aid for our persecuted people, despite the ban on the South African Defence and Aid Fund.’

Collections in the Archives