How I sent Man­dela to prison

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT&ANALYSIS - DESERT IS­LAND DISCS Ra­dio 4, Sun­day, Oc­to­ber 28

NELSON MAN­DELA is per­haps the 20th cen­tury’s great­est states­man and a role model for mil­lions of Africans. How­ever, were it not for an unas­sum­ing young so­lic­i­tor called Joel Joffe, Man­dela may never have sur­vived to make his dra­matic im­pact on his­tory.

Joffe, now Lord Joffe, was per­suaded to or­gan­ise the defence of the African Na­tional Congress leader in 1963-64. Man­dela and his co-de­fen­dants es­caped the death penalty, in part due to the ef­forts of Joffe, says Man­dela.

Joffe was born in 1932 in Jo­han­nes­burg, into what he de­scribed as “an un­event­ful fam­ily”.

He had a dis­tin­guished re­li­gious her­itage, al­though not one he took into adult­hood. His grand­fa­ther had been re­spon­si­ble for the foun­da­tion of the Re­form con­gre­ga­tion in South Africa and Lord Joffe was a reg­u­lar at­ten­der of syn­a­gogue ser­vices. Un­til his bar­mitz­vah that it is. “Af­ter that I never re­turned,” he said.

His fam­ily had an­other Jewish claim to fame. His mother’s fa­ther had com­posed Hava Nag­i­lah, a fact which per- suaded Joffe to in­clude the song as one of his Desert Is­land choices.

Joffe’s strug­gle for jus­tice started as a child. Pre­sen­ter Kirsty Young re­minded him that he got into the habit of re­dis­tribut­ing wealth by hand­ing over his pocket money to his fam­ily’s black ser­vants. He wasn’t so ac­com­mo­dat­ing to teach­ers at the Catholic school he at­tended, par­tic­u­larly when he felt there was an is­sue at stake. “I re­acted against ir­ra­tional dis­ci­pline ”, he re­called, adding, “but I thought that was be­cause I was a dif­fi­cult child”.

That dif­fi­cult child grew up to cham­pion the rights of the un­der­dog. Once he had qual­i­fied as a so­lic­i­tor, he be­gan to of­fer le­gal ser­vices to those he felt most needed it. “I started to build up a le­gal aid prac­tice with­out the part­ners [of his law firm] know­ing. Th­ese peo­ple needed to be rep­re­sented.”

But how did he earn enough money to sur­vive, asked Young.

“Oc­ca­sion­ally, we had a client who could af­ford to pay,” replied Joffe.

His as­so­ci­a­tion with Man­dela started in the early ‘60s. The ANC leader was al­ready in prison when he was first in­tro­duced to Joffe. Joffe re­calls: “The door opened and in he came. Black prison- ers were forced to wear short trousers so there he was in shorts, san­dals and a torn shirt. He was com­pletely un­self­con­scious and as­sumed con­trol. We just waited to be told what to do.”

The trial for high trea­son — an of­fence which car­ried the death penalty — was tense. Joffe’s mis­sion was to save the lives of three peo­ple, Wal­ter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Man­dela. How­ever, the de­fen­dants’ own pur­pose was dif­fer­ent. “Their lives were of sec­ondary im­por­tance. Their aim was to bring their griev­ances to the at­ten­tion of the world.”

Joffe and the rest of the court­room sat in stunned si­lence as Man­dela con­cluded his defence with his most fa­mous speech. “It [free­dom] 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.”

Partly due to the ef­forts of Joffe, he sur­vived. Rarely has a sen­tence of life im­pris­on­ment with hard labour ever been cel­e­brated so long and so hard. Or as Man­dela put it: “Joffe sent me to jail for 27 years.”

Forced to leave his na­tive South Africa, Joffe con­cen­trated on a new ca­reer, build­ing up the Al­lied Dun­bar in­sur­ance com­pany. Not that he left his cam­paign­ing days be­hind. Now he de­votes his ef­forts to sup­port the claims of the ter­mi­nally ill to an as­sisted death.

As for his mu­sic. Apart from Hava Nag­i­lah, there was an eclec­tic se­lec­tion, rang­ing from the South African na­tional an­them Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika, through The Sound of Mu­sic to a record of DylanThomas’s Un­der Milk Wood. Oh, and nat­u­rally there was Joan Baez’s We Shall Over­come.

As for his read­ing ma­te­rial. what else but Man­dela’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Long Walk to Free­dom. As Joffe said, “It would in­spire me. If he could live in prison for 27 years, I could live on a desert is­land for at least that pe­riod.”

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