Lord Joel Joffe: 1932-2017


This Mandela Month, we profile the late Lord Joel Joffe, who defended Nelson Mandela and his co-accused at the Rivonia Trial. Joffe died on 18 June.

Lord Joffe
Lord Joel Joffe, who was in the defence team during the Rivonia Trial, died on 18 June 2017 in London. (Image: Dignity in Dying, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Priya Pitamber

South African-born philanthropist and human rights lawyer Lord Joel Joffe once said the work he had done on the Rivonia Trial, “was perhaps my most important and most invaluable I have ever done”.

Joffe died on Sunday, 18 June 2017 in the United Kingdom. He was 85 years old.

“We have learned with sadness of the passing of one of our most respected legal minds, Lord Joel Joffe, who played a critical role during the liberation struggle for our freedom and democracy [when he] represented political prisoners, including the late father of our nation, president Nelson Mandela and other liberation icons,” the Presidency said.

“On behalf of the government and the people of the Republic of South Africa, we wish to extend our heartfelt condolences to the Joffe family, relatives and all in the legal fraternity across the globe.”

The Nelson Mandela Foundation also sent its condolences: “Our condolences go out to his family and friends, his comrades and all the many people he helped in his life as an attorney.”


The trial

Joffe worked alongside Vernon Berrange, George Bizos and Arthur Chaskalson, led by Bram Fischer, in the defence team of Mandela and his comrades.

The trial began on 9 October 1963, with the 11 accused – Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Rusty Bernstein, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Bob Hepple and James Cantor – appearing on charges of, among others, conspiracy and sabotage.

“For me it was about saving the lives of these wonderful people,” Joffe recalled on BBC radio show Desert Island Discs. “But that was not the main objective of Nelson Mandela and his colleagues… They wanted to put the government [of South Africa] in the dock.

“The nine members of the ANC were the finest people I had ever met – such courage, such integrity, so committed… They were in it for the people. It was a great privilege to defend them.”

In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described Joffe as “the General behind the scenes in our defence”.

Watch Joffe’s recollection of Mandela:

Early life and career

Joffe was born in South Africa on 12 May 1932. He studied at the University of the Witwatersrand, getting a BCom in 1952 and an LLB in 1955. In 2001, he received an Honorary LLD.

After becoming a lawyer, Joffe went into partnership with James Kantor, whose brother-in-law, Harold Wolpe, represented the African National Congress. When Kantor and Wolpe were arrested, Joffe delayed his emigration to step in.

Once the Rivonia Trial ended, Joffe remained in South Africa and continued to defend others who were accused of political offences.

Because of his work, his passport was confiscated and he was harassed by the South African police. Eventually, he and his family were forced to leave via a one-way exit permit. They settled in London.

Life in London

Joffe continued his charitable work in his adopted country, becoming involved with the NGO, Oxfam.

“Colleagues report that his greatest contribution to Oxfam was made during his period as chair from 1995,” reads the organisation’s website. “He used his exceptional mix of acute intelligence and great personal warmth to challenge Oxfam’s work and organisation, often only reaching conclusions after intense questioning and debate.”

In 1999, he was awarded the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE).

In January 2016, Joffe was awarded the Freedom of the City of London alongside the last three remaining Rivonia Trial accused: Kathrada, Goldberg and Mlangeni, and former colleague, Bizos.

“But while he always remained steadfastly loyal to the country and continent of his birth, Joffe also felt deeply patriotic towards his adopted country, Britain – valuing in particular its tranquil countryside, democracy, tolerance and his favourite pastime, tennis,” said Oxfam.

Sources: The Nelson Mandela Foundation, Oxfam, The Presidency, Wits University

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