The coura­geous life of ‘Mr X’

Wil­liam Frankel worked tire­lessly for years to se­cure le­gal fund­ing for peo­ple ar­rested by the apartheid gov­ern­ment

CityPress - - News -

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

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