Safeguarding the sound archives of the Rivonia Trial by INA

The sound archives of the Rivonia Trial have been digitised and restored thanks to an historic partnership between INA and the Republic of South Africa’s Arts and Culture Department carried out since 2013. Today, that partnership is being pursued by the implementation of its “Training” and “Enhancement” aspects.

INA’s cooperation with South Africa

The cooperation between INA and South Africa, which has enabled the safeguarding of the 256 hours of archives of the Rivonia Trial of Nelson Mandela and the other ANC leaders, is part of an historic cooperation agreement signed on 20 December 2013. In this agreement, the South African National Archives (NARSSA) entrusted INA with 591 “Dictabelts”, the very rare and fragile vinyl recording cylinders, which had been used to archive the Rivonia Trial before the Pretoria Supreme Court between October 1963 and June 1964.

INA worked in partnership with ENS Lyon and, in particular, the researcher Henri Chamoux, who invented the “Archeophone", the only modern-day device able to read and digitise the Dictabelts. Together, they digitized, restored and indexed these unique recordings, registered with the Unesco World Memory in 2007.
The very fact that the South African authorities had entrusted a national treasure of such importance to a foreign institution, INA, was in itself an act of trust of an exceptional political and symbolic significance.

INA progressively submitted all of the digitised Dictabelts to South Africa between 2014 and 2016:

  • October 2014: South Africa entrusted the Dictabelts from the Rivonia Trial to INA. The INA teams then worked for two years to complete the digital restoration of the recordings.
  • In 2016: All of the digitised Dictabelts were submitted during two ceremonies, one organised in South Africa at the Court of Pretoria, the other in France at the Elysée. 


This sequence marks the completion of the “Safeguarding and digital restoration of the Rivonia Trial sound archives” part of the agreement signed in late 2013 between INA and the Arts and Culture Department of the Republic of South Africa. The implementation of the “Training and Expertise” aspect of the agreement will continue into 2019.


The DAC and INA also benefitted from the precious support of the French Institute in South Africa (IFAS) for the description of content. Sarah Bruchhausen, a South African researcher, carried out eight months of research at the IFAS transcribing the trial.

Reading and digitising the Dictabelts: the Archeophone

A Dictabelt is a supple, cylindrical shaped vinyl device upon which sound, such as a long-playing record, can be recorded. It weathers the tests of time (oxidation, rigidity, etc.) quite well and affords a remarkable sound quality.  This type of recording device was much used from the 1950s to 1970s, in particular in judicial proceedings (trial recordings) or police matters (bugging telephones lines).

 The recording and reading machines of the time are rare and difficult to maintain and can sometimes even be “destructive” for the original recordings.

Over the past 15 years, Henri Chamoux, an enthusiast in former audio recordings, has invented and developed a reading and digitisation machine for this type of cylindrical device, known as the Archeophone.

The historical context of the Rivonia Trial

  • 11 July 1963: several members of the African National Congress (ANC) were arrested in their hideout, the Lilliesleaf farm located in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia. Their leader, Nelson Mandela, who had already been in prison for several months, was to be judged with nine of his comrades at the Court of Pretoria between the months of October 1963 and June 1964.

Percy Yutar was the formidable prosecutor responsible for bringing the very serious charges of sabotage and destruction of goods, both liable for the death penalty. At the end of the trial Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg were condemned to life imprisonment.

At the opening of the trial, the co-accused had the choice of pleading their cause or being questioned. Although Percy Yutar attacked them virulently, he never addressed himself directly to Nelson Mandela, who had chosen to defend his cause and that of his co-accused in a vibrant plea for democracy and equality between peoples, which would last three hours.
On 20 April 1964, Mandela made his now-famous “speech from the dock”, the only time he would take the floor during the trial. The speech included the famous phrase he would pronounce again 27 years later in front of the crowd waiting for him as he left prison on 11 February 1990: “… I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve, but if need be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

  • I'm prepared to die

  • Nelson Mandela

Training and enhancement

INA has now completed the digital restoration of the Rivonia Trial sound archives. The partnership between INA and South Africa continues apace on training and skills transfer, on the one hand, and on enhancing the archives, on the other.

• The skills transfer aspect of the agreement

Teams of South African professionals are being trained in France and South Africa to carry out digital safeguarding operations on the Dictabelts that carry the sound recordings of other historical events in their country’s history.

Between 50,000 and 100,000 devices must be inventoried, digitised and restored throughout the country. Several teams have been carefully put together and put forward in 2018/2019 in order to ensure that they master the installation of the safeguarding and digitisation plan (the preservation and mechanical restoration of the Dictabelts, the digital audio restoration, the assessment and preparation of the Dictabelts and the technical equipment, etc.).

• The enhancement aspect

INA has taken part in enhancing the Rivonia collection as part of a number of creative, innovative projects, and adapted to the new digital uses, to produce some powerful, original works:

The “I am prepared to die” hologram event

On the occasion of the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, INA and the Image Forum paid a tribute to him on 5 and 6 April 2018, during the NewImages Festival. A single show placed the audience at the very heart of the Rivonia Trial, recreated in holograms and 3D animation in the magnificent setting of the Saint-Eustache church in Paris, in which Nelson Mandela’s voice and words resounded.  A world first.

The case against Mandela and the others

The sound archives from the Rivonia Trial form the heart of the film entitled “The case against Mandela and the others”, presented as part of the Official Selection at the last Cannes Film Festival, and coproduced by INA. The story of the struggle against Apartheid retained but one name: that of Nelson Mandela. He would have been 100 this year. He came to light during an historical trial in 1963 and 1964. Alongside him among the co-accused, eight of his comrades also faced the death penalty.

The sound archives of the Rivonia Trial, serving research, art and culture.

INA, the French Institute of South Africa, NARSSA, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Wits History Workshop held a meeting on 26 and 27 September 2018 on the theme of “Listening to the Rivonia Trial”, as part of the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela.
These two days celebrated the digitisation of these sound archives, which give society in South Africa today and future generations access to this unique heritage.
The event aimed to invite researchers, writers and artists, but also each and every citizen to remember and explore this turning point in South African history.
The programme includes artistic performances, presentations of the archives and the restoration process, screenings, etc.

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