Memories of Mandela by the man who helped to save him from a death sentence

Swindon Advertiser: Nelson Mandela Nelson Mandela

IN the living room of his 17th Century manor house near Swindon Joel Joffe blinked back a tear, took another sip of Dom Perignon and declared, with pride and emotion: “I have been waiting more than 25 years for this.”

He was not referring to the title Swindon Businessman of the Year that had been bestowed upon him months earlier.

The future Lord Joffe was alluding to the dramatic scenes he had been witnessing, over the previous hour or so on television.

There he had seen, for the first time in just over quarter of a century, a man whose life he had helped save but who he never thought would breathe the fresh air of freedom again – Nelson Mandela.

Mr Joffe said: “I feel great emotion, excitement and elation. I never believed his release was possible. It was virtually unthinkable at the time that he would ever be set free.”

It was a chilly but sunny Sunday in Wiltshire: February 11, 1990 – the day of Mandela’s release.

At the time Mr Joffe, 57, was deputy chairman of Swindon-based financial giant Allied Dunbar (which later became Zurich) which he had helped found.

He had kindly invited myself and a photographer into his beautiful gabled country house at Liddington, with its huge Tudor fireplace, to capture his feelings and comments on this momentous occasion.

It was one of those journalistic jobs that stick with you over the decades: a pivotal occasion of the 20st Century – but with a strong Swindon connection to cover, too.

We found Mr Joffe and his wife Vanetta in a heightened state of excitement and celebration at their 350 year-old restored home.

They were grinning warmly and Mr Joffe had just cracked open the champagne.

But it was almost as if they couldn’t quite believe what had been beamed onto their TV screen from 5,600 miles away. Having intently studied TV footage of Nelson Mandela emerging from prison Mr Joffe admitted he was somewhat taken aback by the appearance of the once burly ex-boxer.

“He’s clearly aged considerably, as you would expect of someone who has spent such a long time in jail.

“But he has about him the same presence, authority and statesman-like look with which I always associated him.”

He predicted – quite accurately, as it turned out – that “as he becomes more familiar with his surroundings his dynamism and forceful presence will emerge.”

Mr Joffe, a South African-born lawyer, was in 1963 appointed lone instructing solicitor to defend Mandela and nine fellow ANC members.

He said he first spoke to the man who went onto become “one of history’s greatest citizens” at a police interview room in Pretoria.

Mr Joffe recalled: “I was pretty young. I had done some other political trials. No other lawyers were prepared to take on this trial.

“But I was proud to do it. These were great people in the dock and it was a great privilege to defend them.”

Mr Joffe hired several barristers to represent the defendants but it was he who masterminded the defence.

“It was a victory for us that they were given life sentences, and the death sentence was not passed.”

Sipping coffee from a large ‘Release Mandela’ mug fellow South African Vanetta, 51, who had been glued to the television with her husband, said: “It is so emotional for us. It was always a relief that the death sentence was not passed.”

The last time Mr Joffe saw Mandela was shortly after the sentence in 1964.

As a reward for his sterling court work Mr Joffe was given a stark choice by the apartheid authorities: leave the country and never return or your passport will be confiscated. Persona non grata they flew to the UK in 1965.

Strolling around the expansive lawn of his Grade II listed home for photographic purposes, Mr Joffe – who at the time chaired the Swindon and District Health Authority – spoke of his renewed hope of meeting Mandela again.

“Of course, having defended him I got to know him very well and I would love to meet him again.

“But I know he will have many other things to do and people to see far more important than me.”

The future Labour peer had recently spoken by phone to one of Mandela’s fellow ANC campaigners Walter Sisulu, who had been released from jail a year earlier.

He was also planning to send Nelson a telegram of congratulations. As it transpired, not long afterwards, the man who became “the global hero of our age” was only too pleased to welcome his former lawyer into his home where they shook hands, hugged and spoke of their hopes for a new South Africa.


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