How I sent Mandela to prison
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.”