Narratives on Trial: Ideology, Violence and the Struggle over Political Legitimacy in the Case of the Delmas Treason Trial, 1985-1989
The insurrectionary period of the mid-1980s in South Africa reflected contestations between supporters of the anti-apartheid movement and the apartheid regime over the direction and pace of political and social change, symbolising the deepening crisis of political legitimacy of the South African regime. In three major treason trials, the state attempted to legitimise repression and delegitimise extra-parliamentary opposition by portraying it as revolutionary and violent. The largest and longest running of the three treason trials was the Delmas Treason Trial, in which the state aimed to prove that the United Democratic Front (UDF) had conspired with the African National Congress (ANC) in exile and other organisations to overthrow the government by violence. In response, lawyers for the defence divorced protest action from the ideology and strategies of the banned liberation movements and depoliticised collective violence. Both the prosecution and the defence therefore linked political legitimacy to the absence of violence. Based on the extensive records of the Delmas Treason Trial, the article examines the production of these two narratives. It argues that legal imperatives and political concerns flattened the complexity of political engagements and the plurality of experiences in court. The discursive construction of the events during the trial silenced the voices of women activists, the ANC underground as well as militant youth groups. The article examines these gaps, silences and biases to shed new light on how the records of the Delmas Treason Trial can be used for historical research.