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Alan Magid: impeccable jurist and cornerstone of Durban Jews



“He had integrity, moral courage, independence, and experience in the law, all the attributes of the ideal judge.”

Close friend, Judge Phillip Levinsohn’s, words capture the true essence of the late judge, Alan Magid, whose death last Friday on the threshold of his 93rd birthday has been mourned far beyond the Durban Jewish community.

Philip Alan Mendell Magid was born in Durban on 24 May 1929. The son of a prominent attorney and concert singer, he matriculated at 16 from Durban High School, and pursued his BA LLB at the University of Cape Town.

Magid had a long and illustrious legal career. He was admitted as an attorney in 1953, and practiced as a notary and conveyancer for more than two decades. After becoming a non-executive director of a listed public company in 1973, Magid returned to the legal world and “took the silk” after just six years in July 1981, a remarkably short time in which to attain this feat.

After 16 years as an advocate, he was appointed to the Bench on 1 March 1991, where he worked tirelessly until retiring on his 75th birthday. Magid was willing to join the Bench only after President FW de Klerk announced a moratorium on the death penalty, saying that he would be uncomfortable handing down the death sentence when there was even a slight chance that an innocent person could die.

A highlight for Magid was interviewing Nelson Mandela at Pollsmoor Prison in 1987 as a witness in the defence of 13 African National Congress activists. As senior counsel at the time, the court granted Magid unprecedented access to Mandela, who was prevented from being a witness in the high court and had to have his testimony relayed by Magid. Working alongside him as junior council was Pius Langa, who later became South Africa’s chief justice and head of the Constitutional Court.

Besides his immense contribution to South African law, Magid was a pillar of the Durban Jewish community. Inspired by the legacy of his grandfather, Eli, and his father, Lionel, Magid became involved in Jewish communal affairs at an early age, first joining the children’s services of the Durban United Hebrew Congregation (DUHC). Some of the leadership positions he held over the decades included trustee of the DUHC; chairperson of the Durban Jewish Club; honorary life member of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) KwaZulu-Natal Council; and honorary life governor of the Natal Hebrew Schools Association.

After his retirement, Magid, who was known for his love of history and sense of humour, worked as a volunteer guide at the Durban Holocaust & Genocide Centre (DHGC). “A wonderful man of knowledge and a proud son of Durban, Alan was always interested in everything that was going on around him,” said Mary Kluk, the national chairperson of the SAJBD and director of the DHGC.

“Alan had a marvellous comradery with the pupils. In spite of not being frum, he insisted on wearing a yarmulke when guiding any groups, explaining a little of what it means to be a Jew. He will be missed.” Maureen Caminsky, DHGC project manager, recalls that, “Not only did he share his knowledge of history pertaining to the timespan of our exhibition, but when discussing President Roosevelt and his involvement in the Evian Conference, Alan proceeded to give pupils a summation of all the United States presidents. He felt that pupils today weren’t learning enough world history.” “He lead an exemplary life, and always stood up for justice,” said former SAJBD KZN chairperson, Sidney Lazarus. “He always gave sage advice,” remembered DHGC trustee Linda Nathan. “He was caring, his warm presence was always felt in a room.”

Magid also gave generously of his time to the broader community. He was a member of the Council of Natal Law Society from 1965 and vice-president from 1971 until retirement, as well as honorary life vice-president of the KwaZulu-Natal Tennis Association, and a trustee of the KZN Performing Arts Trust. Magid volunteered for Tape Aids for the Blind, and worked as an honorary consultant for the Legal Resources Centre.

“I knew Judge Magid from his position on the board of governors of Carmel College and from his unfailing attendance at the Great Synagogue every Shabbat, always impeccably attired in suit and tie,” said Warren Bank, a Durban-born lawyer practicing in Bermuda. “It wasn’t until I was sent to the Pietermaritzburg High Court for a trial that I first encountered him as a judge. When he heard that one of his ‘Durban boys’ had come all the way to run a trial, he made sure to reserve it for himself.”

In spite of his demanding professional and communal life, Magid was a devoted husband to his beloved wife, Brenda, and a loving father to his children, Bess, Susan, and Paul.

“He was truly a shining star in the Jewish firmament,” said Levinsohn. “A bright light has been extinguished. Alan’s contribution to – and his activities over his lifetime on behalf of – the Durban Jewish community and wider community are immeasurable.”

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