Joel Joffe was the person who put together the legal team to defend Nelson Mandela and his colleagues in the Rivonia trial, 1963/64. He met regularly with Nelson Mandela and others in prison and in the cells below the courtroom. It was Joel who received the handwritten note from Nelson Mandela of the speech he intended to make from the dock. When Joel and the others read what Nelson Mandela intended to say at the end of his speech they advised he should take out the last sentence as if found guilty they would face the death penalty.
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It 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.”
Mandela insisted it remain. It was Joel’s responsibility to get the speech typed which he did and returned to meet with Nelson Mandela the next day in his cell. Joel had instructed the typist to not include the final sentence. Mandela read the typed speech carefully then asked Joel for a pen and with it put the final sentence back into the speech.
As Joel recounted it was his task, together with the other members of the defence team, to try and get the accused acquitted but given that the evidence against them was strong so the real objective was to avoid the death penalty. However Nelson Mandela and his co-accused decided to use the trial to put apartheid itself on trial. He paid tribute throughout his life to their courage and integrity and that it continued to inspire him.
Immediately prior to the trial Joel and his wife Vanetta had planned to leave apartheid South Africa and emigrate to Australia with their two young daughters. Despite the fact their luggage had been shipped ahead, Joel needed no persuading to put those plans on hold and bring together a powerful defence team to advise and support Mandela and his eight co-accused. Following the trial and sentence of life imprisonment it was clear that Joel and his family needed to leave South Africa. They planned to resume their emigration to Australia. However, given his role in defending Nelson Mandela and his co-accused he was told he was no longer welcome and Australia’s loss became the UK’s gain when Joel arrived.
Joel became a successful businessman in the UK and he was a co-founder of Allied Dunbar Company, which had an ethical policy long before they were common. He became chair of Oxfam and was made a life peer in 2000. He established the Joffe Charitable Trust focussing on the relief of poverty and human rights in the developing world.
ACTSA is proud that Joel supported ACTSA’s work on women’s rights in Swaziland, human rights in Swaziland and the campaign for decent compensation and health care for ex-mineworkers across southern Africa who have silicosis.
Joel was bright with a sharp and incisive mind. He put his values and principles into action. He championed human rights and dignity for all, supported programmes that reduced poverty, and was a passionate advocate for justice. He had a good sense of humour and demonstrated humility. Joel never pushed himself into the spotlight but it found him because of his essential qualities of a being a good human being who cared about others, he fought injustice and helped change the course of history for the better.
We will miss him but we celebrate his life and many achievements.
When I heard Joel had died I felt sad because I would never enjoy his company again but sadness quickly gave way to thanks and appreciation. I am glad and fortunate to have known Joel. He was a decent, sincere, honest, principled man who made a real and lasting difference in the UK and in South Africa.
Hamba Kahle, Joel
(Hamba Kahle is a Xhosa expression broadly translated in this context as farewell)