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Joel Joffe, legal defender of Nelson Mandela, bows out

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Tributes have poured in for the iconic legal mind who defended Nelson Mandela during the 1963 Rivonia Treason Trial, which saw the anti-apartheid leader jailed for life – but spared the death penalty.

Joffe moved to the United Kingdom in 1965 shortly after the trial and worked in the financial services industry, setting up a large insurance firm and later becoming a parliamentarian, spearheading a campaign for assisted dying for the terminally ill. 

He was very involved in various capacities with the aid agency Oxfam, also serving as its chairman for several years.

He and his wife Vanetta set up the Joffe Charitable Trust in 1968, which still supports development in the developing world, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa.

“He was a friend, inspiration and support to many fighting poverty and injustice. The Joffe Trust will continue to work for these goals,” said members of the Trust this week.

Joffe was born to a Jewish family in Johannesburg on May 12, 1932 and first studied business, then law at Wits.

Well-known British anti-apartheid campaigner, Peter Hain, told AFP that 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.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described Joffe’s role as being “the general behind the scenes in our defence”.

“For me it was about saving the lives of these wonderful people,” Joffe told BBC radio in 2007, “It was a great privilege to defend them.”

Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam’s UK branch, said: “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.

“His fearless campaigning for the care of the elderly, corporate responsibility and global development, shaped the world for the better; he always maintained his trademark self-deprecating sense of humour,” said Goldring.

Joffe was appointed to the British parliament’s House of Lords in 2000, as a Labour Party member.

He was awarded honorary doctorates from several universities and retired from the House of Lords in 2015, after which he was awarded the Freedom of the City of London last 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”.

Lord Joffe spoke at the celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela held at the Westminster Hall, House of Commons, in December 2013

 

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