Joel Joffe, the lawyer who helped put the apartheid regime on trial

OBITUARY:

JOEL JOFFE
1932-2017

A young human rights lawyer from Johannesburg has had enough of living under a repressive racist regime. The Sharpeville massacre has taken place, in which police murdered 69 people whose only crime was they were black and protested against having to carry the hated dompas.

The young lawyer decides to emigrate to Australia with his wife and two baby daughters. But Harold Wolpe is then arrested pursuant to the Rivonia round-up, and soon after that escapes from a Pretoria prison. Wolpe’s law partner and brother-in-law, Jimmy Kantor, is arrested, and the young would-be émigré agrees to delay his passage and wind up Kantor’s office.

Winnie Mandela then approaches him to request that he represent her husband in a litany of charges brought against him and other ANC leaders, as formulated by the regime’s diligent and unquestioning apparatchik, prosecutor Percy Yutar. He agrees and this further delays his departure from South Africa.


It is a true measure of Joel Joffe that he embraced this monumental legal task. Indeed, many years later Nelson Mandela would describe Joffe as “the general behind the scenes in our defence”. Joffe recalled that, “for me, it was about saving the lives of those wonderful people”, the nine members of the ANC who were on trial, whom Joffe described as “the finest people I have ever met – such courage, such integrity, so committed”.

Our struggle politics were once populated by giants. Joffe constituted a team of equal legal distinction, including Bram Fischer QC, George Bizos, Vernon Berrangé and Arthur Chaskalson. As befits a human rights lawyer, Joffe knew well that, the lawyers’ technical expertise apart, his clients wanted to use the trial as a political event by putting the apartheid regime on trial. That they did and Rivonia remains the case where our great leaders, notwithstanding horrendously lengthy prison sentences, defied the odds arranged by the racist regime and emerged to take their rightful place as leaders of a democratic country.

Joffe wrote two instructive books about the trial: The Rivonia Trial (1995) and The State vs Nelson Mandela: The Trial That Changed South Africa (2007).

The trial held consequences for Joffe. He was given a one-way “exit visa” from South Africa, but Australia, to its eternal disgrace, deemed him an undesirable immigrant. The Joffe family landed up in the United Kingdom. There he changed course and established, with another South African, an insurance business, Abbey Life, which later became Hambro Life Assurance. It was hugely successful and Joffe became an exceedingly wealthy man.

But he never forgot his human rights commitments, forged in the country of his birth. Hambro was one of the first UK companies to devote a meaningful share of its profits to charity. He was the chair of UK charity Oxfam from 1995 to 2001.

On becoming a Labour peer in 2000, he committed himself passionately to the legal recognition of euthanasia, going so far as to propose a private member’s Bill to recognise the rights of the terminally ill. He also remained active in a range of causes designed to enhance South African democracy.

All these extraordinary achievements aside, it was his principled, deeply committed contribution to the defence of the Rivonia accused for which he will be most remembered – and rightly so, as a model for future generations of South African lawyers.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Advertising

Subscribers only

Pandemic cripples learners’ futures

South African schools have yet to open for the 2021 academic year and experts are sounding the alarm over lost learning time, especially in the crucial grades one and 12

Q&A Sessions: George Euvrard, the brains behind our cryptic crossword

George Euvrard spoke to Athandiwe Saba about his passion for education, clues on how to solve his crosswords and the importance of celebrating South Africa.

More top stories

Power shift at Luthuli House

Ace Magashule’s move to distance himself from Carl Niehaus signals a rebalancing of influence and authority at the top of the ANC

Trump slinks off world stage, leaving others to put out...

What his supporters and assorted right-wingers will do now in a climate that is less friendly to them is anyone’s guess

The US once again has something  Africa wants: competent leaders

Africa must use its best minds to negotiate a mutually beneficial economic relationship

Stern warning against Covid greets Mthembu’s death

The ANC has slammed conspiracy theorists and cautioned against showing complacency towards the deadly virus
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…