The courageous life of ‘Mr X’
William Frankel worked tirelessly for years to secure legal funding for people arrested by the apartheid government
He was honoured this week for living a double life, telling white lies and for creating a scheme to channel money to pay the legal fees of political activists. William Frankel was conferred with the Order of Luthuli in Silver at an awards ceremony at the Sefako Makgatho presidential guesthouse in Pretoria on Tuesday for spending 25 years providing desperately needed legal funding for anti-apartheid activists on trial.
But the year he joined the International Defence and Aid Fund (Idaf), the apartheid government banned it.
“I joined a City of London law firm in early 1966 and a couple of months later, one of my colleagues asked me to join a meeting he had been called to by John Collins of St Paul’s Cathedral, who had established the Idaf in 1956,” he told City Press on Friday on the phone from a beach in Cape Town.
“Collins told us at that meeting the South African government was banning the fund and making it a criminal offence for anyone in the country to receive any financial assistance from it.”
It was at this meeting that the elaborate international financing scheme was hatched.
The Johannesburg-born lawyer sat around a table in London with a few other fund members and plotted how to create “dummy trusts” and “cutouts” to ensure that money secretly raised by the United Nations and more than 50 governments worldwide was distributed to trialists and their dependants in South Africa.
“Hardly a day or week went by without the need to consider voluminous newspapers often containing harrowing stories of torture and extreme cruelty,” he said.
“We ensured that the opponents of apartheid had the benefit of legal representation at their trials and that questions were asked at inquests when activists died under mysterious circumstances.”
The scheme involved a whole series of “agents” – other lawyers who knew nothing of the scheme – who were scattered around the world from the UK, Germany and France, to Australia and the US.
As soon as the foundation heard that a person had been detained by the apartheid government, Frankel would either find them a lawyer or approach the lawyer they already had.
“We’d draft a letter to a law firm saying we have a client who is being detained and we want to ensure he has proper legal representation and would pay the legal costs.”
Once the invoices were sent via the agents, Frankel would get the money from the fund and channel it back to the agents to pay the detainees’ legal fees.
No one knew that the money was coming from a banned organisation, and that is what helped it work for so many years.
Some of the many people they funded included the Treason and Rivonia Trialists, while they simultaneously pulled the wool over the apartheid government’s eyes.
But every now and again, a prosecutor would smell a rat.
“On a couple of occasions, the prosecutors would say they believed that the money coming in was from Idaf. “This was a serious matter,” Frankel said. By then, the small Idaf team knew how to deal with this, having already called on big names to tell white lies.
“Many influential and wealthy people like [British peer] Lord [John Middleton] Campbell said we could always use their names,” he said.
“I would write to my agents and they would in turn write to the South African government, saying that the money did not come from the fund but from Lord Campbell.
“And they couldn’t do anything about it because he was a very wealthy man and he was willing to stand up and tell a little white lie.
“We had so many people, including bishops, trade unionists and academics, who were all prepared to say the money came form them if the question arose.”
For 25 years, this was Frankel’s life – but his colleagues, wife, children and parents knew nothing about it. He was known in Idaf circles simply as “Mr X”.
“When Collins used to write to me, he would only refer to me as ‘Dear Mr X’. We took great care to cover it up. In a way, I was living a double life. I was leading a very successful law practice and at the same time I was running an illegal legal aid fund for social activists in South Africa.”
Shortly after graduating from the University of Cape Town, Frankel left the country in 1963 so he would not be arrested for political activity. He spent a year in Australia before moving to London, where he built up a substantial commercial law practice.
“I worked incredibly hard at the law firm – never working less than 12 hours a day. I had the law firm, which was a full-time job and my other life, which was also a full-time job.”
But the secret finally came out just after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and organisations, including Frankel’s, were unbanned.
“A newspaper in London wrote the first story about the secret fund and its clandestine operations. It was very much like a James Bond thriller,” he said.
“I only found out when I went to lunch on a Sunday with my wife, and a number of people were staring at us. Then a person came up to me and asked what the devil had I been up to all these years. It was quite a shock for me to know that people knew.”
After spending 25 years sworn to secrecy to protect the fund and those benefiting from it, Frankel maintained his silence until last year, when he spoke after accepting the University of Cape Town’s medal of honour for his service to human rights.
“I’m not one to shout from the rooftops,” he said.
HONOURED President Jacob Zuma (right) bestows the Order of Luthuli in Silver on William Henry Frankel at the Sefako Makgatho presidential guesthouse in Pretoria this week