The Sunday Independent

Lawyer put life on hold to help defend Mandela

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JOEL Joffe, the man who deferred his plans to leave South Africa in 1963 so he could help defend Nelson Mandela and the other Rivonia Treason triallists, died in England after a short illness. He was 85.

Joffe, who was made a life peer in 1999, becoming Baron Joffe of Liddington, left South Africa in the year after the Rivonia trial ended, and settled in Britain.

He wrote two books about the trial, The Rivonia Story in 1995 and The State vs Nelson Mandela: The Trial That Changed South Africa in 2007.

Reproduced in the latter volume is a touching letter written from prison in May 1964 – just a month before the Rivonia accused were sentenced to life imprisonme­nt – in which they expressed their gratitude to Joffe.

They wrote: “When our trial started in October 1963, none of us had ever met Joel Joffe before. All we knew of him was that he had cancelled plans to leave South Africa to take up our defence. This alone, at a time when frenzied hysteria was being whipped up against us among the white population, assured us he was a man of rare courage and real devotion to the cause of justice.”

They said they had come to know him “as a lawyer and a friend” who not only gave sage legal advice but took “on himself services far beyond the call of a lawyer’s duty”, assisting “in all the personal and family problems that have beset us, as though our friendship had been long and close”.

“Nothing,” they said, “has been too much trouble for him or fallen outside his concept of a lawyer’s responsibi­lity to his client.”

Joel Goodman Joffe was born in Joburg on May 12, 1932, to a mother born in Palestine and a father born in Lithuania.

He attended a Catholic boarding school, and was educated at Wits University, graduating with a BCom, LLB in 1955.

He worked as a human rights lawyer from 1958 until 1965, when he left South Africa and settled in England. Joffe pursued a new career in Britain in the financial services industry, eventually establishi­ng Hambro Life Assurance with Sir Mark Weinberg. He was also active in voluntary work.

He was associated with Oxfam in various roles between 1982 and 2001, chairing the organisati­on from 1995.

Joffe was also a member of the Royal Commission on the Care of the Elderly, and chaired the Swindon and Marlboroug­h Health Authority and The Ridgeway Hospital.

Joffe was a trustee of many charities and actively pursued a range of charitable activities through the Joffe Charitable Trust.

He was generously honoured for his work, receiving honorary doctorates from the Open University (1995), De Montford University (2000), Wits University (2001), Brunel University (2004) and Bath University (2006), and was awarded the Freedom of the City of London last year.

He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1999 New Year honours, and made a life peer in February 2000. He retired from the House of Lords in 2015.

According to his biography on Wikipedia, Joffe was a “Jewish atheist and a humanist in his beliefs” who was a “devoted member and patron” of Humanists UK, whose campaigns have included ethical issues such as assisted dying, and the promotion of a secular state in the UK.

Wide-ranging tributes to Joffe poured in this week from political and other spheres.

One of the most esteemed was made a decade ago by Mandela, who wrote of Joffe’s virtues in his foreword to The State vs Nelson Mandela. “We went into that courtroom determined to put apartheid in the dock, even if this were to put our own lives in jeopardy. And we were assisted by a legal team led by the indomitabl­e advocate Bram Fischer and managed by the tireless attorney Joel Joffe,” Madiba wrote.

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