Joel Joffe is the attorney who helped save Rivonia eight from the gallows

25 June 2017 - 00:03 By Chris Barron

Joel Joffe, who has died in England at the age of 85, was the instructing attorney in the 1963-64 Rivonia trial of Nelson Mandela and nine other ANC/Communist Party leaders.
A month before the trial ended, when they were convinced they would hang, they wrote of Joffe: "As the general behind the scenes of our defence he has managed and marshalled this most complex case with understanding and skill."
When news of their arrest in Rivonia on July 11 1963 broke, Joffe was almost as much in the dark about them as anyone else.
He was vaguely familiar with the name Walter Sisulu, but knew nothing of the others (except a little about Mandela, who'd been in prison for a year), and precious little about their cause.
He did know, however, that he could no longer tolerate the injustice and cruelty of apartheid, and by the time of the arrests he had decided to emigrate to Australia.
Too frightened
Then Hilda Bernstein came to his office to ask if he'd act as an attorney for her husband Lionel, one of those arrested.
Joffe never met either of them before. She had tried other lawyers and they'd all turned her down. They were too busy or too frightened, she said. Joffe was her last hope.
She was followed by Sisulu's wife, Albertina, and Winnie Mandela.
He was under no illusions about what they were asking from him: to undertake a case of unknown duration in defence of people he didn't know, whose actions he knew nothing about, against unknown charges.
Judging by press leaks, there was a mountain of compelling evidence against the accused. He thought they didn't have a chance and he'd be wasting his time.
For two months there had been a hostile media campaign against them.
The sub judice rule had been ignored by everyone, including the minister of justice, the attorney-general of the Transvaal and his deputy, Percy Yutar, the chief of police and the head of the security branch.
They had all commented on the facts of the case and proclaimed the accused guilty.
Joffe decided there was no chance this would be a fair trial. Every legal instinct told him it was a lost cause.
As he wrote in his account of the trial soon after it ended: "They were going to appear in a white court, with a white judge, white prosecutor, white witnesses, white assessors, white policemen, white court orderlies and a white press."
He took the case, and the formidable obstacles he feared immediately became evident.
He couldn't find out whether, when or with what they would be charged. All he knew was that deputy attorney-general Yutar was working flat out to prosecute.
He realised he'd have little time to assemble a defence, which would be hard enough even if he knew the charges.
The atmosphere was rife with fear and hysteria, and lawyers shunned him. "Quiet intimidation had seeped through the ranks," he wrote. There was also no money. The local Defence and Aid Fund was reluctant to help in cases where acts of violence had allegedly been committed by the accused.
So he approached Canon John Collins of StPaul's Cathedral, London, who had started the British Defence and Aid Fund. Collins undertook to raise £19,500. Joffe felt this might cover a year-long trial if his defence advocates agreed to slash their normal fees. In the event, they agreed to charge less than a fifth of normal fees.
The families of the accused asked him to obtain the services of Communist Party leader and ace lawyer Bram Fischer to lead the defence team. Joffe readily agreed.
Apart from his legal talents, Fischer knew all the accused personally. He accepted, knowing the probable retaliation he'd be exposing himself to.
They both thought it quite likely that Fischer would be arrested at any moment. Joffe knew the rest of the team had to be good enough to do without Fischer if necessary.
He roped in the talented junior counsel George Bizos and Arthur Chaskalson, and the highly experienced senior counsel Vernon Berrange and Harold Hanson.
On October 7 1963, Joffe heard rumours "through the legal grapevine" that the Rivonia prisoners were to appear in court in Pretoria the next morning. He phoned Yutar, who confirmed this and suggested he be in the Supreme Court in Pretoria with his counsel at 10am.
When they arrived at the Palace of Justice no one else was there, neither the accused nor Yutar. The registrar of the court said he knew nothing about the case.
When Joffe managed to contact Yutar, the man was unapologetic. He told him the case would begin the next day, but still wouldn't say what the charges were or who would be charged...

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