Tributes were paid Tuesday to Joel Joffe, the lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela in the trial that saw the anti-apartheid icon jailed, following his death at the age of 85.
Lord Joffe died on Sunday, said Oxfam, the aid agency which he chaired. The Nelson Mandela Foundation said the human rights lawyer died in London.
Joffe was a key part of Mandela’s defence team in the 1963-4 Rivonia Trial, which saw Mandela given a life sentence for sabotage against the apartheid South African state.
After leaving for Britain, he founded a big insurance firm and later became a parliamentarian spearheading the campaign for assisted dying for the terminally ill.
Leading British anti-apartheid campaigner Peter Hain said Joffe was an “iconic figure” who never sought the limelight — “he just supported everybody else“.
Joffe was “a totally generous person, warm, passionate, and he continued to fly the flag for the anti-apartheid struggle and subsequently the new South Africa,” Hain said.
Joffe was born to a Jewish family in Johannesburg on May 12, 1932 and studied business, then law at Witwatersrand University, graduating in 1955.
Mandela’s wife Winnie approached him to defend her husband in the Rivonia Trial, where several leading members of the African National Congress (ANC) liberation movement were facing charges.
In his autobiography, Mandela described Joffe’s role as being “the general behind the scenes in our defence“.
Jailed for life, Mandela served 27 years in prison before his release in 1990, going on to become president of the new racially-equal South Africa.
“For me, it was about saving the lives of these wonderful people,” Joffe told BBC radio in 2007.
“The nine members of the ANC were the finest people I had ever met — such courage, such integrity, so committed… It was a great privilege to defend them.” Following the trial, South Africa offered him the opportunity to leave as long as he never returned.
Rejected by Australia, he moved to Britain in 1965.
Joffe co-founded what became the Allied Dunbar life assurance group in 1970. It was bought out by Zurich in 1998.
Joffe was the chairman of Oxfam from 1995 to 2001.
“He was able to use his sharp legal mind and years of experience in business to challenge authority and increase the effectiveness of our work around the world,” said Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam’s UK branch.
“His fearless campaigning for care of the elderly, corporate responsibility and global development shaped the world for the better, yet he always maintained his trademark self-deprecating sense of humour.” Joffe was appointed a member of the British parliament’s upper House of Lords in 2000, sitting for the Labour Party.
Joffe retired from the House of Lords in 2015 and was awarded the freedom of the City of London the following year.
In 2007, Joffe wrote a book about his experiences entitled “The State vs. Nelson Mandela: The trial that changed South Africa“.
In its foreword, Mandela wrote that the book would serve as “one of the most reliable sources for understanding what happened at that trial and how we came to live and see democracy triumph in South Africa“.
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