Joel Joffe: Rivonia Trial lawyer, a man you could bet your life on

One of the lawyers who saved Nelson Mandela from the rope and became a millionaire English lord died in his country home of Liddington, in Wiltshire, on June 18, aged 85.

Joel Joffe, the former chairman of Oxfam, was one of three surviving lawyers from the so called Rivonia Trial that ended in 1964 in life imprisonment for Mandela and his comrades on 221 charges of sabotage. He is survived by Johannesburg Human Rights Lawyers George Bizos and Denis Kuny.

I had the pleasure of meeting him at a 50th anniversary reunion of the raid on Liliesleaf, in Rivonia Johannesburg, the hideout where police arrested most of the accused in 1963.

I was struck by how he carried his wealth and title lightly – you wouldn’t have blinked if you saw him shopping in a Johannesburg supermarket. He was made Baron Joffe of Liddington, in 2000, by Labour premier Tony Blair; I asked about his title.

“Ag, just call me Joel,” says he.

At the time the trial began in 1963, Joffe, who wanted out of apartheid South Africa, was packing for Australia. Bram Fischer, who led the defence, asked him to be the instructing attorney.

“He slept on a mattress on the floor with his wife; his furniture had gone to Australia. He was persuaded to stay .They lived on as little as possible so the defence fund could go as far as possible…What Joel showed is that courage takes many different forms, here was a lawyer who wanted out of apartheid and yet stayed to uphold the principles of justice for people who had no hope of surviving, at a time when no other lawyer would take it on. That is courage,” says accused number three Denis Goldberg, aged 84, who lives in semi-retirement in Hout Bay, near Cape Town.

The trial, that lasted nearly a year, cost 29,000 pounds, at 1964 prices, but the defence team chose not to take a penny.

At the climax of the trial, Mandela spoke these words that went down in history: “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

It was Bizos who added the words “if needs be” into the speech to try to stay the death penalty and Mandela wasn’t amused.

“I read my speech and there seems to be an error, he said. It is my sentence and I want it back!” chuckled Joffe.

On a more sombre note, Joffe recalled the handwritten note by Mandela, now in a museum, in which he wrote his last words, should he hang.

“This handwritten note said ‘I apologise for nothing, I was fighting for justice and there’s no sacrifice I am not prepared to make in the cause of justice’ that was Mandela, faced with hanging, no fear,” smiled Joffe on that warm spring evening back in 2013. He left the country of his birth in 1965 for England where he founded the life assurance Allied Dunbar, in 1970, with seed capital from Hambros Bank. It made him a multi-millionaire, yet he spent much of his time and money helping the poor. He was a little downbeat about the country of his birth when I asked him about it in 2013.

“In South Africa today sadly the majority of the population is living in poverty and unemployment and one believes there is much more that government could do about that and then these problems with corruption, incompetence and inefficiency would disappear.” he says.

Words that ring even truer today.

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