One of Nelson Mandela’s Rivonia trial lawyers confessed on Friday how he tried — and failed — to stop the ANC leader using one of the most famous phrases in South African history.
Joel Joffe, instructing attorney in the 1964 trial, was speaking at a reunion of political prisoners hosted by President Jacob Zuma at his official residence in Cape Town.
The phrase was from Mandela’s speech from the dock at the opening of the defence case, in which he told he judge that he hoped to live to see the realisation of the ideal of a democratic and free South Africa.
“But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die,” Mandela added.
Joffe said that a few days before the address to the court the legal team met Mandela and his co-accused.
“[Advocate] George Bizos said to him, Madiba, if you actually say those words, the court will take it as an invitation to impose a death sentence.
“And it might well accept that invitation.”
Mandela was, however, adamant that was what he would say, Joffe said.
“And he gave me his speech in his handwriting to type out, as his attorney. And in typing it out I was so … it was so unacceptable to me that there was a danger he would be sentenced to death that I deleted that sentence.
“I gave him the transcript the next day. The day after that I got a note from Madiba, saying in his normal courteous way, it read something along the lines: ‘I suggest you put that statement back’.
“And of course a suggestion from Madiba … when he suggests something, you follow.”
Joffe said he remembered the day in court when Mandela made that “extraordinary speech”.
When Mandela came to that phrase at the end of the address, he took off his glasses.
“[He] looked straight at the judge, and told him that he was prepared to die.
“He sat down and there was a moment of stunned silence in the court which went on for certainly a minute or so. And then the trial resumed.”
Mandela, who was sentenced to life imprisonment, used the phrase again in the first speech he made on his release from jail on February 11 1990.
Zuma used it his State of the Nation address on Thursday night, the 20th anniversary of Mandela’s release.
Joffe left South Africa on an exit permit in 1965, and started up an insurance business in the United Kingdom, where he was elevated to the peerage in 2000.
He said he had donated the note from Mandela to the Legal Resources Centre, where it remained in the archives.
Joffe also represented Zuma when he was on trial for trying to leave the country for military training, and at one point was shuttling between the two trials in Pretoria.
“It’s extraordinary to me as a lawyer that every one of my clients went straight to Robben Island after my indomitable defences,” he joked.
Among the former prisoners attending the event were Andrew Mlangeni, Clarence Makwetu, Thandi Modise, Mac Maharaj, Helen Pastoors (who now lives on a farm in Chile), Swapo founder Andima Toivo ya Toivo, and Dennis Goldberg.
There was also former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, who allowed the ANC in exile to maintain its headquarters in Lusaka.
Mandela himself joined the lunch long enough to pose for photographs with his comrades, before leaving again with his wife Graça.
After listening to several veterans recounting stories of their days on Robben Island and other prisons, Zuma proposed that they should come together over several days at the end of the year to tell their anecdotes and have them recorded.
“If that generally is acceptable, I think we can begin to work on it … and organise a place, and there is no better place than Cape Town.
“On one of those days we could cross to Robben Island.”
“There are so many things to talk about.” – Sapa