Memories of David Soggot, ‘the frugal hedonist’

Some time ago the civil rights lawyer, David Soggot, went to visit a friend in hospital, emerging to find that Johannesburg’s busy thieves had been at it again; they had stolen his car.

As is so often the case, the loss of the car was not as serious as the loss of his briefcase and the papers it contained. So he was much relieved, back at chambers, when a parcel arrived — delivered, the commissioner said, by a well-dressed young man who had declined to give his name. Inside was the missing briefcase with all the papers intact.

The tribute paid so silently by the anonymous thief was appropriate to the life of the Johannesburg silk who died in the city of his birth this week, aged 78.

Born of Jewish and Lithuanian descent and graduating from the University of the Witwatersrand, David’s peers were the leaders of the South African Bar and he ranked with the greatest of them — Kentridge, Chaskalson, Mahomed and Bizos among others. To witness the warm smile on Nelson Mandela’s face on seeing him was to appreciate his standing among the great and the good.

In his days as junior counsel he represented John Harris, the so-called “station bomber” executed in 1965. In Harris’s farewell letters to his wife from death row David’s name keeps popping up, always in admiration for the “terrier” who carried Harris’s hopes of beating the hangman. That he did not win reflects on the country’s security chiefs at the time, John Vorster and General Hendrik van den Berg, who are believed to have rigged the case against Harris.

Essentially a defence lawyer, the names of the clients David represented and the judicial hearings in which he was involved echo through the pages of recent South African history: Biko, [Winnie] Mandela, Delmas, Broederstrrom, Mayekiso, Goldstone, the Eikenhof 3 …

David found much of his legal practice in what was then South West Africa (Namibia) where he established a particularly close association with Swapo (the South West African People’s organisation). He made his reputation in the protectorate through another case rigged by the special branch — popularly known as the case of the “Kaiser Street Matahari” in which the security police were caught planting an agent as a typist on his defence team. The trial, which involved two death sentences, was vitiated by the appeal Court in Bloemfontein, by a bench led by then Chief Justice Rumpff. When the news got back to Windhoek there was literally dancing in the streets of Katutura townshop.

David also had pride at having appeared in the Kingdom of Swaziland, in a case in which he represented an opposition MP thrown out of Parliament. When David won the case the king suspended the Constitution and declared him a prohibited immigrant — a status he enjoyed until the day of his death.

Among his friends David was known as “the frugal hedonist, having a passion for good music, good conversation and good food — the latter of his own cooking. Recently he took up painting under the tutelage of one of his daughters, Thea, who is a professional artist.

Where others are remembered in the glory of their office, memories of David are to be discovered in his humour and his quiet courage.

Humour stands on its own, but courage is not an easy attribute to justify, paricularly when it came from an intensely private man like David. It was in the late stages of his life — after the stroke which so cruelly took most of the advocate’s speech — that I saw and heard that quality, of courage, in a question he quietly asked me: “Do you think I should wait around?” He did, for seven years, and the lives of his friends were richer in consequence.

At the weekend, as he was wheeled into the operating theatre, he looked around and said: “It looks like Pretoria Central” [maximum security prison]. They were his last words.

David leaves his wife, Greta, a son, Mungo, and daughter, Katya, as well as two daughters by a previous marriage, Thea and Paula.

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