Without the Observer, and David Astor, Mandela would have hanged

In 1964, when Nelson Mandela and others were facing the death penalty, one newspaper, the Observer, kept the issue before the world's eyes, and effectively saved the ANC leadership

Writing in the 20-page Mandela supplement inside today's paper, author Jeremy Lewis, who is currently working on a biography of former Observer editor David Astor, quotes from a letter by South African anti-apartheid campaigner Mary Benson to Astor in 1964: "I wonder whether you realise how much you and the Observer must be largely responsible for Nelson's life?"

The letter is a reference to the Observer's relentless reporting from South Africa in that period and in particular its coverage of the Rivonia trial in 1963-64, when Mandela and other ANC figures faced the death penalty for acts of sabotage against the regime. The Observer, through the redoubtable Anthony Sampson, covered the trial on a weekly basis and campaigned for the men to be spared the death penalty.

Shaun Johnson, chief executive of the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation in Cape Town, and a former editor of the leading South African liberal newspaper the Weekly Mail, is in no doubt about the significance of the Observer's coverage. He told us: "I've spoken to many of the Rivonia triallists, and I've spoken to Mr Mandela, and I believe that, if the Rivonia trial had taken place without the world's media covering it, it is possible the apartheid government would have hanged the triallists. The Observer led the way, unquestionably, by a country mile. The fact that the Observer relentlessly, every Sunday, was publishing front-page reports on this, I have no doubt influenced wiser people within the cabinet at that time to say, 'Wow, this could be really bad international publicity'.''

Johnson was speaking to the Observer two years ago when we travelled to South Africa to make a short film on the paper's role in campaigning against the anti-apartheid regime. What we found was a remarkable fondness for David, and an acute appreciation of the paper's role in the fight.

While making the film we met Winnie Mandela, who spoke of the Observer, and David, with passion and warmth. She was explicit about the impact of the Observer's reporting.

"Had it not been for the coverage of the Observer," she said, "those men would have faced the death penalty. We knew that, and they knew that too: it was the Observer that saved the leadership of the ANC."

Richard Astor, son of David, who also appears in the film, told us: "My brother-in-law interviewed Nelson Mandela and he told me afterwards that Mandela actually said: 'If it hadn't been for David Astor and the Observer, myself and Oliver Tambo would have hanged.' "

Shaun Johnson has no doubt about Astor's contribution: "I am not sure it is understood in London, but of all newspapers in the world, the masthead of the Observer is cherished in South Africa. Because under David's editorship it was not only the first serious newspaper in the world to take Africa seriously, it was the first newspaper in the world to take Africans seriously. A major figure like Oliver Tambo was taken seriously first by the Observer.

"And Anthony Sampson played a key role. I think David was the first editor to cover Africa in a post-colonial manner."

Even after stepping down as editor, Astor continued to support the struggle against apartheid. He arranged for books to be sent to Mandela and other prisoners on Robben island, and helped the Mandela family financially.

He also helped to set up the Southern African Advanced Education Project in London in 1986, which was designed to help advise and school a whole new generation of South Africans in running the country once the apartheid regime eventually fell.

Observer 1964 page Nelson Mandela Rivonia speech
26 April 1964: how the Observer reported Nelson Mandela's address at the Rivonia trial, at which he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Photograph: Observer Photograph: Observer

Read some of the Observer's archive reports here

Nelson Mandela acknowledged Astor and the Observer's contribution on Astor's death 12 years ago, when he said: "Under him, the Observer supported the African National Congress from the early years of apartheid, when we most needed it and when most newspapers ignored it.

"During the years on Robben Island I knew the Observer was continuing to keep myself and my colleagues in the minds of the British people while our names were banned in our own country."


John Mulholland

The GuardianTramp

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