Listening to the Rivonia Trial

Courts, Archives and Liberation Movements

A one-day international colloquium

as part of the opening and study of the apartheid archives in South Africa

Since 2012, the Department of Arts and Culture, the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa (NARSSA) and Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA — French National Audiovisual Institute) have worked to restore the audio recordings of the Rivonia Trial, making the previously inaccessible recordings available to the public.

In the year of the Mandela Centenary, a colloquium, hosted at the University of the Witwatersrand, intends to reflect on the contemporary and historical significance of the restored Rivonia Trial sound archive and other legal archives, through a comparative reach into the experiences of colonial and repressive regimes in other parts of Africa. New perspectives on liberation movements and emancipatory politics will be at the heart of the panel discussions. A presentation of the processes of mapping the Rivonia Trial sound archive will serve as a point of departure for the study of archives elsewhere: the act of collecting, mapping, restoring and digitising the archives raises ethical questions that, in turn, become historical questions. These processes also shed light on the technical challenges of heritage management which hamper accessibility to such heritage for future generations.

The colloquium is organised by the Wits History Workshop and IFAS-Research, in partnership with the INA, the Institut Français, the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa (NARSSA), the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Embassy of France in South Africa, the CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research), the Hanns Seidel Foundation and research centres CHS XXe siècle (Paris) and LARHRA (Lyons and Paris).

Scientific and organising committee: Sarah Bruchhausen (Wits History Workshop), Brenda Kotze (NARSSA), Arianna Lissoni (Wits History Workshop), Noor Nieftagodien (Wits History Workshop), Matthieu Rey (IFAS-Recherche), Razia Saleh (Nelson Mandela Foundation) and Thomas Vernet-Habasque (IFAS-Recherche). With the teams of NMF, IFAS, IFAS-Recherche, NARSSA and INA.


Thursday 27 September 2018

9:00 to 16.30 | Wits University

Graduate Seminar Room, South West Engineering Building, University of the Witwatersrand


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Colloquium programme

The colloquium will be organised around three thematic panels:



Rivonia Trial Dictabelts folders
(c) Henri Chamoux

Sarah Bruchhausen | Ph.D. fellow, Wits History Workshop

The Rivonia Trial and Emancipatory Politics: Listening to an Apartheid Archive

Henri Chamoux | Researcher and Sound Engineer, CNRS, LARHRA

Digitising the Rivonia Trial Dictabelts with the Archeophone Phonograph

Quentin Geffroy | Sound Engineer, INA

Restoring the Rivonia trial recordings 

Nkwenkwezi Languza | Head of Sound Preservation, NARSSA

Freeing the Voices of Freedom: Trials and Triumphs in the Preservation of the Rivonia Trial Dictabelts

Chair/discussant: Razia Saleh (NMF)



Leyla Dakhli | Researcher, CNRS, Centre Marc Bloch

Tunisia, between Memory and Justice, the Aftermath of the Revolution of 2010-2011

Yasmin Sooka | Executive Director, Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa and Former TRC Commissioner

Access to the TRC Archives and the Link to Accountability and Reparations

Sylvie Thénault | Senior Researcher, CNRS, CHS

The Archives of Colonisation in Algeria: a Political and Scientific Problem

Agnès Magnien | Director of Collections Department, INA

Individual and collective Responsibilities in Collecting, Selecting, Describing, Securing and Giving Access to our Memory

Chair/discussant: Nomzamo Zondo (Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa)



Chaymaa Hassabo | Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg

Law and Revolution in Saad Zaglul Memoirs

Tembeka Ngcukaitobi | Advocate, Author

Title TBC

Meredith Terretta | Associate Professor, University of Ottawa

The Heart of the Matter: Changing Definitions of Death, International Anti-Apartheid Advocacy, and Transformative Law

Chair/discussant: Arianna Lissoni (Wits History Workshop)


Rivonia Trial Dictabelt files (c) Henri Chamoux


Context | The restoration of the Rivonia Trial audio archive

The Rivonia Trial (1963-1964) was a defining moment in South African history. At the time, the trial was carefully recorded on Dictabelts, a now obsolete audio recording format. Nearly 250 hours of the trial proceedings were recorded on 591 Dictabelts, kept by the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa (NARSSA). In the 1970s, Dictabelts had fallen into disuse and, consequently, countless Dictabelt recordings of other apartheid-era trials – invaluable records of history and heritage – were not accessible to researchers and the general public.

In 2012, NARSSA approached the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS) and the French National Audiovisual Institute (INA) to start a process of digitisation and restoration of the entire Rivonia Trial sound archive, which is now complete. At the same time, INA has been offering ongoing training to NARSSA sound technicians, so that South Africans may have their own agency over tens of thousands of Dictabelts dating from the apartheid era, which are yet to be restored and studied.  These archives – a treasure trove of memory – should therefore not remain hidden away. Efforts to (re)gain access to historic records is a process that revives the universal impetus of archives for research, art, culture, the law and beyond.

The audio records of the Rivonia Trial are now fully accessible to the public through the NARSSA website and to accredited researchers via INA’s multimedia library.

Moreover, for the first time, a researcher’s guide, descriptive calendar, lists of individuals involved, and an inventory of the various archival collections pertaining to the trial were produced as part of the project, through the support of IFAS-Research.

The opening of the Rivonia audio archive provides a comprehensive record of most of the trial, which gives unprecedented access into the intricacies and daily unfolding. In addition to the testimonies of all the accused, including accused no 1, Nelson Mandela, and the 174 witnesses called by the state, these records shed light on the making of the prosecution’s case and the defence team’s strategy.  Moreover, its audio nature has the potential to popularise the history of this key moment in South Africa’s liberation struggle, as well as to engage this topic in novel ways from both scholarly and creative perspectives.


French radio-broadcast | Les archives du procès de Rivonia, un passé à écouter, une histoire à écrire

Within the framework of the international colloquium, the famous French radio show, La Fabrique de l’Histoire recorded a special broadcast dedicated to the Rivonia Trial sound archive. Les archives du procès de Rivonia, un passé à écouter, une histoire à écrire aired on french radio station France Culture on November 15 2018, and is now available on replay and podcast (in French).

It features interviews with Razia Saleh (Nelson Mandela Foundation), Sarah Bruchhausen (Wits History Workshop), Agnès Magnien (INA), Noor Nieftagodien (Wits History Workshop), Henri Chamoux (LARHRA/CNRS), Quentin Geffroy (INA), Gerrit Wagener (NARSSA) and Nkwenkwezi Languza (NARSSA).

> Replay



Focus on Sarah Bruchhausen | New insights on the Rivonia Trial

In addition to the restoration of the Dictabelts themselves, an important part of the project was dedicated to the elaboration of an exhaustive inventory of any piece of knowledge surrounding the trial.

From November 2016 to June 2017, Ph.D. fellow Sarah Bruchhausen (Wits University) was commissioned by NARSSA and IFAS-Research to establish a comprehensive record of the entire trial, thus providing unprecedented access into its intricacies and daily unfolding.

For the first time, researchers can access the following items:

✔ A researcher’s guide: a document explaining each of the documents created and the way they can be used to engage with the Dictabelt recordings and other archival materials of the Rivonia Trial.

 An index: for each timeline she drafted, Sarah created a table of contents and a list of abbreviations used throughout the documents

✔ A chronological order of Dictabelt recordings: a chronological list of of the Dictabelt records of the Rivonia Trial which correlates with the daily entries provided in each of the descriptive calendars.

✔ An exhaustive list of all the accused (including accused no 1, Nelson Mandela), the 174 witnesses called by the state, the judge, the defence counsel and the prosecutors.

✔ An archival collections overview report: an inventory of the various archival collections pertaining to the trial

✔ A technical report: a document created for the archivists at the Old Film and Sound Records Archive or for future researchers and technicians commissioned to continue work on the Rivonia recordings.

This work has been used by NARSSA and INA to present and map the audio files on their multimedia libraries. This work was fully funded by IFAS-Research.


(c) Nelson Mandela Foundation