/ 27 March 1997

Yutar and `holy disbelief’

As different interest groups are called to account by the truth commission, Claudia Braude challenges the Jewish community to confront its role in apartheid

THIS piece was born over a year ago as I watched the televised documentary of President Nelson Mandela’s meeting with Dr Percy Yutar. It was part of Mandela’s post- apartheid national journey pursuing reconciliation with figures emblematic of apartheid history. He drank tea with Betsy Verwoerd, wife of Hendrik Verwoerd, architect of apartheid. And he met Yutar, state prosecutor in the Rivonia trial that exiled him from the world of history for 27 years. Probably only worldwide protests staved off the death penalty.

The documentary raised the question how Yutar, a Jew familiar with the history of anti-Semitic racism, could have played the persecutory role he did in the political trial of the apartheid state. Yutar was clear he had no difficulty reconciling his religious Jewish identity with this role. He’d resolved the matter years earlier. “I have my conscience to live with,” he told the Rand Daily Mail in 1976. “I am an Orthodox Jew and view life, and my duty, in a serious light.”

In 1934, following admission to the Bar, he was employed by the post office to trace defaulting telephone subscribers, after his application for employment in the justice department was refused. In June 1937 he was accepted as a clerical assistant. “I was still not placed in the courts simply because I was Jewish,” he said in the South African Jewish Times.Indeed, Yutar made a conscious decision to overcome the pro-Nazi anti-Semitism he encountered in government offices. “Secretary for justice Hansie van Rensburg instructed that my ancestry be traced to ascertain whether my parents were Jewish or not. It was then that I decided to remain in the service and vowed to become the country’s first Jewish attorney general.” He refused to conceal his Jewishness from his colleagues, wearing a signet ring in the shape of a Star of David.

Yutar repeated these sentiments sitting next to Mandela on that presidential couch. Mandela, who sat stock-still and stern throughout, only the movement of his eyes offering an indication of his discomfort, nodded his understanding when Yutar described encountering this anti-Semitism.

Yutar has described the years 1934 to 1939, when Afrikaans nationalism was profoundly pro-Nazi, as “a time when anti-Semitism had reared its head in its worst possible form”. He has admitted these are years he “would like very much to forget”. In this he was not alone. South Africans generally were encouraged to “forget” the Nazi influence on Afrikaans nationalism.

Yutar himself did a good job in forgetting, his amnesia translating into support for those who caused him pain. Joel Joffe, the instructing attorney representing the Rivonia accused, has documented the trial and Yutar’s performance in his book The Rivonia Story. He believes Yutar took instructions from the political authorities of the state, including senior police officials; and that his performance at the trial was generally motivated to suit the political requirements of the apartheid government.

While Yutar no doubt believed, and probably still does, that his concern was with the welfare of Jews under Afrikaans nationalism, according to Joffe it found a distorted outlet. Whatever his attitude to the Rivonia trialists generally, the indications are that his wrath was most strongly directed at the Jews among them. Joffe was unsure whether to put Dennis Goldberg in the box since “Yutar and his police aids seemed to have a particular hatred for Dennis.” Joffe, himself a Jew, believes Yutar “seemed to regard it as a duty to prove to the government that there were `good Jews’, through his own enthusiastic persecution of these subversive Jews like Goldberg”.

Joffe’s account indicates that Yutar’s Rivonia show was partly motivated by his continuing fear of Afrikaans anti-Semitism. He documents Yutar’s heightened awareness of police anti-Semitism, including his excitement at not having encountered expressions of anti-Semitism during his time at the headquarters of the security branch. Yutar’s response to Joffe’s line that he didn’t consider an absence of anti- Semitism to be a good cause for special praise is instructive: “Yutar bridled, saying, `If you were a policeman, Joffe, wouldn’t it make you anti-Semitic to have people like [Lionel] Bernstein and Goldberg going around stirring up the Bantu?'”

Yutar was not the only one concerned that Goldberg and Bernstein would bring disrepute to the Jewish community. The Jewish press of the day, which indicated that “the two white men accused in the Mandela trial were not the only Jews to feature prominently in the proceedings”, clearly felt compelled to draw attention to Yutar’s position as “a leading member of the Jewish community in Johannesburg”.

It’s hard now to imagine the apologist mindset that promoted the Jewishness of the state prosecutor over that of two of the Rivonia trialists. Nonetheless, Yutar gained “good Jew” status among the Afrikaans nationalists he once feared. This is most obvious in then minister of justice Jimmy Kruger’s description of him as “the official with the highest sense of loyalty he had ever found in a public servant”. What greater acknowledgment of the distance travelled from debt collecting in a back office than Kruger’s praise that he raised the position of attorney general to great heights and set a standard which his successors could only meet with the greatest effort?

Yutar received approbation from secular and religious leaders of the establishment South African Jewish community. They considered his an “illustrious career”, and praised him for bringing credit to the community which they believed he “graced”. His career fitted in with the community’s policy of political non-involvement promoted, in part, by the fear of possible state reprisals.

Maurice Porter, the chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ executive council, congratulating Yutar on his appointment as attorney general of the Orange Free State, offered him “the warmest wishes of the Jewish community for a successful tenure of his post”.

Benjamin Pogrund, journalist, tells us that Rabbi Norman Bernhard of Oxford Synagogue in Johannesburg did the same from the Friday night pulpit. According to Pogrund – who, on occasion, sat across from Yutar in Oxford Synagogue – one of the reasons provided by the state when refusing to renew Bernhard’s work permit was his anti- apartheid sermons. (The synagogue committee succeeded in reversing that decision.)

One can only speculate how the state knew what sermons were made in the synagogue, and if there were, perphaps, undercover agents, possibly Jews themselves concerned with the interests of the apartheid state. One wonders to what extent the changes in Bernhard’s sermons (by the mid-Eighties he was, according to Geoff Sifrin, architect and chairman of Gesher Jewish movement for social action, quoting “ancient Jewish sources about the need to support the authorities”) were a result of state pressure? Bernhard, who told me this week he knew he was monitored by HJ van den Berg, head of the bureau of state security, denied there were changes and said he was consistently opposed to apartheid.

The Jewish press used Yutar’s career to formulate lessons for Jewish and South African history. An editorial in the South African Jewish Times, one month after June 16 1976, interpreted his career as “a measure of what racial intolerance would have cost this country had he been compelled to languish among the debt collectors”. Even more striking than its illumination of mainstream, Jewish communal gratitude for Yutar’s visible loyalty to the apartheid regime, is the irony of characterising his success as the product of the country’s racial tolerance a month after the Soweto uprising.

I doubt anybody would criticise Yutar for overcoming anti-Semitism. It is, however, the route he and the mainstream Jewish community chose to do so that leaves the bitter taste. Other routes were available to Jews who encountered Afrikaans pro- Nazism. Trade unionist Solly Sachs (father of Constitutional Court Judge, Albie Sachs), for instance, dedicated his life to opposing, rather than promoting, the interests of the pro-Nazi Afrikaans nationalists.

Eliezer Berkovits, Holocaust theologian, invented a theological category to speak of people who entered Hitler’s hell believing in God and came out believing in nothing. He speaks of “holy disbelief”: “Faith murdered a millionfold is holy disbelief.” According to Berkovits, it’s easier to understand the human loss of faith in the concentration camps than the superhuman faith preserved and affirmed. No one, argues Berkovits, can contest either the holy disbelief of those whose faith was destroyed in the camps or the faith that survived.

I feel something related (if not identical) in the face of Mandela’s superhuman forgiveness of those, like Yutar, who came close to destroying his life. While we cannot knock, and indeed must affirm, the lesson of Mandela, and the need to pursue peace and reconciliation, perhaps we can coin a new South African phrase – “holy magnanimity”?

That Mandela can forgive Yutar might not be a recipe for those of us, who are only human, to follow suit. When I called Yutar to request an interview, he told me he’d said everything he will about the trial, and anyway Mandela has forgiven him. Mandela’s forgiveness, implicit in their meeting, does not, however, cover my anger at what Yutar, and his colleagues, did in the name of Jewish communal interest. For us to “forgive” Yutar as did Mandela is to sully the strength of his post-Robben Island magnanimity. In the absence of honest grappling with the miserable consequences of the fears inspired by pro- Nazi Afrikaans nationalism, it’s too easy to be generous and understanding of Yutar’s role in South African history. It makes a travesty of Mandela’s gesture.

It is not only Jews who need to remember the enduring if invisible fear of the influence of Nazism on Afrikaans nationalism. The continuing amnesia has significant spin-offs in contemporary debates about South African memory, and in attempts to reconcile with the past of apartheid. Distorted memory of links between Nazism and apartheid are central to debates around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This week FW de Klerk, in his second submission to the truth commission, put to use Afrikaans historian Hermann Giliomee’s outrage, at Kadar Asmal et al’s assertion and indeed, reminder, that apartheid is, like Nazism, a crime against humanity. This outrage is based on and promotes the amnesia of links between Nazism and apartheid.

Their refusal to distinguish between those who perpetrated and those who fought against apartheid equates “both sides” of apartheid history. De Klerk describes any distinction as “a sure recipe for the rekindling of inter-racial animosity”. The truth commission report could rob these distortions of memory of their continuing vitality by making clear and robust distinctions.

— Claudia Braude is a freelance writer and is on the editorial board of Jewish Affairs