Steadily, slowly, step by careful step, the three greying legal heads made their way to the reunion at Rivonia. Their progress was as deliberate and methodical as the defense they led with razor sharp precision in their finest hour, in court half a century ago.
Joel Joffe, George Bizos and Denis Kuny are the survivors of the legal team that defended accused number one, Nelson Mandela, and his comrades in facing the death penalty over 221 charges of sabotage. They are all in their 80s, two of them are still working; Bizos and Kuny, who both live in Johannesburg, tackle human rights cases. Multi-millionaire Joffe is retired in the English countryside of Wiltshire after a lifetime of legal work in London and the setting up of Hambro Life Insurance.
Joffe, who wanted to get out of apartheid South Africa, was about to emigrate to Australia when he was asked to be the instructing attorney for the defense in the Rivonia Trial at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria. The trial cost £29,000 pounds, in 1964, but the defense team chose not to take the money they had earned.
“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 defense 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.
Kuny defended fellow lawyer Jimmy Kantor, accused number 12 in the trial, who had nothing to do with the case but was scarred by it. Ludicrous evidence against Kantor, thrown out by the judge, included that he was seen feeding the chickens at Liliesleaf; therefore he must have known about the sabotage plotted there. Kantor was acquitted but his legal practice was destroyed and he went to an early grave.
The reunion was to launch the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the police raid in Rivonia, which sparked the world-famous trial. It was a winter’s afternoon on July 11, 1963 that a delivery van pulled up outside a thatched cottage at the back of Liliesleaf—a safe house used by underground activists. The van was a Trojan horse. Inside were 14 policemen and a dog. Inside the cottage was almost the entire leadership of the South African underground movement holding a meeting, including Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and Govan Mbeki. The police jumped out of the van, surrounded the building and rushed the door. Mbeki and Kathrada tried to escape through the window but were hounded down. The police handcuffed the activists in a circle outside the cottage and let the dog snap at them. They couldn’t believe they had caught so many activists in one place.
“We have hit the jackpot!” said an excited officer-in-charge over the police radio.
Joffe, Bizos and Kuny stood at around the same spot where that triumphant statement was made, as they posed for photographs on a warm February evening. They recalled memories of the trial of the century that proved the turning point for South Africa. The trial saw the words of Mandela and his fellow accused fly around the world changing millions of minds. Overnight, the saboteur criminals were seen more as freedom fighters; the Benjamin Franklins of Africa—in the words of Bizos.
Three of these words that winged their way drew smiles on the night. Bizos, the strategist in the legal team, says he made a slight change to the famous speech on behalf of all the accused 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,” Mandela concluded from the dock to a dramatic silence in court, according to eyewitnesses, in which you could hear a pin drop.
“I felt the speech was too strong as it was. It was an invitation to the judge to hang everyone and make them martyrs, so I recommended we put in the words ‘If needs be,’” says Bizos.
Joffe—a former chairman of Oxfam, was made Lord Joffe by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair—remembered Mandela’s reaction to the change.
“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 serious note, Joffe recalled the handwritten note by Mandela, now in a museum, in which he wrote out his last words, if he were to hang.
“This handwritten note said: ‘I apologize 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,” says Joffe.
The lawyers have 150 years legal experience between them. They say they would do it all again and support the new South Africa, with reservations.
“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 efficiency would disappear,” says Joffe.
“I know that there are people, including me, who are disappointed with some of the failures of the government, some of which were very serious and unnecessary, but I don’t go along with the idea that nothing has changed. Things have changed in relation to education, health and the professions,” says Bizos.
All three are as unassuming as they are sage. You would not blink if you saw them in your corner shop buying a loaf of bread.
When I double checked with Joffe, whether his title was Lord or Baron, he smiled.
“Ag, just call me Joel.”
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