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The General behind the scenes in the Rivonia trial

- Bonita Meyersfeld

Five things you didn’t know about Rivonia trial lawyer Joel Joffe, lawyer extraordinaire.

After Nelson Mandela’s Rivonia trial defence lawyer Joel Joffe died, there was an outpouring of tributes. A year later, I remember him as an example of the kind of lawyer and human being I would like to be. 

Joel Joffe passed away, almost a year to the day, last Sunday the 18th of June 2017. Joel was best known for his role as the defence attorney for Nelson Mandela and the nine other accused who were in the dock during the Rivonia Trial. Described by Mandela as ‘the General behind the scenes in our defence’, Joel was an integral part of the fabric of the Rivonia Trial, about which he also authored the seminal book The State versus Nelson Mandela.

After Joel died, there was a litany of obituaries and testimonies. They spoke to his courage in defending freedom fighters in apartheid; for leaving the comfort of working for a law firm when they would not allow him to do pro bono work; for being asked by the apartheid government to leave and never come back (the notorious ‘Exit Visa’); for the refusal of the Australian government to admit Joel and his family on the basis that they were “undesirable immigrants”; for his trail-blazing work in the insurance industry; for his role as a philanthropist and for reforming Oxfam; for his continued dedication to Africa while in the House of Lords; and, of course, for his constant commitment to, and adoration of, his family and friends.

I knew Joel as a personal mentor and I want to talk about the part of Joel that perhaps might not appear in the declarations of respect and love that peppered the world’s press. I want to write about five things that you may not have heard about Joel Joffe.

  1. Joel was not only a gentleman; he was a gentle man; a gentle human being. He was not shy or retiring but he had a unique way of fiercely pursuing justice without being fierce. He was insistent without being hard of heart and he was clear in his ideals while simultaneously, and unusually gentle in their transmission and implementation.

  2. Joel had wealth that was not about money. For Joel, profit-making was the pursuit of richer justice. He was a constant and dedicated supporter of social justice organisations, including the Centre for Applied Legal Studies and the Wits Justice Project at Wits, and of course, the Legal Resources Centre.

He used his position in business to advance the international law field of “business and human rights”, particularly in the realm of pension funds.

So Joel’s wealth went beyond the making of money; his profit was in social justice and in the accountability of all repositories of power, both public and private.

  1. Joel was important but he was not self-important. He took his work seriously and the causes to which he was dedicated. But he never took himself seriously.

While Joel garnered great respect, he worked and lived in a manner that was independent of the good opinion of others. He acted according to principles and not perceptions. This was evident in Joel’s contentious but determined commitment to the right of terminally ill patients to choose the time and manner in which they might end their lives. Twice he brought a private member’s bill to the House of Lords and on both occasions the Bill was rejected before its second reading. It was not often that the House of Lords would refuse even to debate a bill. Most people would wilt under the disapproving glare of such rejection. But Joel understood that the important consideration was not whether his fellow peers approved of his ideas; but rather that he proved his commitment to that which was unpopular.

  1. Joel was not only charismatic; he was also a character. One only has to look at any picture of Joel to see his boyish and somewhat mischievous smile. I knew Joel for only the last ten years of his life but I never felt that I was speaking to an older person – a wiser person, yes; but not an old person. I worked and engaged with a person full of a youthfulness and excitement that belied his age and stage.

  2. Joel was powerful but he was also full of power. And he took this power and gave it to others. When Joel was last in South Africa he kindly came to spend some time with my colleagues at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies. We were all in awe of this legendary luminary. My colleagues spoke tentatively about their work, probably believing that someone so powerful would listen with kindness and support but not necessarily with admiration. And yet it was with genuine awe and delight and deference that Joel engaged with us. He made us all feel that we were the powerful ones. And we all still continue to be buoyed by the gift of power he gave to us.

It is for these five reasons, and many more, that I came to love Joel. And it is for these reasons, and many more, that I write this with a broken heart.

But one thing that Joel’s death will not change is the extent to which I hold him in my heart as the benchmark for the lawyer – and the human being – I want to be.

Bonita Meyersfeld is an Associate Professor at the Wits School of Law and former Director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies. She is an editor of the South African Journal on Human Rights and the founding member and chair of the board of Lawyers Against Abuse. This article was originally published on the Daily Maverick.