Joel Joffe and the fight for justice

 from Rivonia to the present day

In April 1964, Joel Joffe tried to change one of the most famous political speeches in history.

Joel, a South African lawyer, was representing Nelson Mandela in the historic Rivonia Trial. Mandela was on trial for his life. His opening address described the struggle for justice in depth, and closed with these extraordinary, powerful words:

“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.”

Joel and the defence team felt that this invited the judge to impose the death sentence. He could not bear the idea of Mandela and the co-accused being hanged. So, when he typed up the draft of Mandela’s speech, he simply left out the final sentence. Mandela returned Joel’s draft with corrections, putting the closing words back in again. And that is how Mandela delivered it to a packed courtroom, making history.

Joel’s work at the Rivonia Trial shaped his long and eventful life. It also established the connection with Canon John Collins, who raised the money to cover the defendants’ legal costs.

The defence team and the defendants were multi-racial, united by their pursuit of justice. Mandela would later write:

“As a friend, Joel has taken on himself services far beyond the call of a lawyer’s duty. He has assisted in all the personal and family problems that have beset us … We have come to admire and respect this quiet, courageous man whose devotion to the cause of justice has been shown to be in the very highest tradition of his calling.”

Joel carried this devotion through his life’s work.

Shortly after the Rivonia Trial, Joel, his wife Vanetta and their young daughters emigrated to England. They were not welcome back in South Africa for many years. Joel was unable to practise as a lawyer. So, with other South African exiles, he went into business and helped set up the hugely successful life assurance company, Allied Dunbar.

However, his real interest always lay in social justice.

In 1968, when still making their way in a new country and by no means wealthy, Joel and Vanetta set up the Joffe Charitable Trust, which continues today. In 1973, Joel persuaded Allied Dunbar to set up their own charitable trust, far in advance of most corporate giving. He was so insistent that the board agreed to give 1% of profits to charity “on condition that the subject was never raised at board meetings again”.

And still he was not done, going on to found many other initiatives such as the Percent Club, whose corporate members also gave 1% of their profits to charity. By 1993, it had 500 members, raising £100m per year.

Joel became known as a champion of philanthropy and charitable work in the UK. He was patron of 19 charities, chair of at least six (including the international aid agency Oxfam) and trustee of another seven. Through his personal example and charitable trust he encouraged people to do exceptional work in charities that otherwise simply would not exist today.

At the Joffe Charitable Trust, which I have the privilege of leading, we work to continue Joel’s legacy in the present day.

We make grants and support work in two areas. Both continue the endless fight for justice and equal opportunities for all.

First, after long reflection with Joel, we support work to fight corruption and promote tax justice. Corruption is the enemy of democracy everywhere. It distorts government decisions, to benefit a small elite at the expense of the public at large. It fuels inequality, with deadly effect for the poorest. And it holds back the fight against pandemics and climate change alike.

The Zuma regime showed the catastrophic impact of corruption and tax abuse in South Africa, continuing to limit opportunities for the majority of the people. But these issues are international. Britain is a particular enabler of dirty money from around the world. At the Joffe Trust, we support work to raise standards in the financial system, so it is more just for lower income countries.

Second, we support people to build stronger non-profit organisations. This continues Joel’s tradition of encouraging people with energy and ability to do great things in the world.

In this vein, we are delighted to fund the Joel Joffe Scholarships, in collaboration with the Canon Collins Trust. The programme supports young South African lawyers to develop their skills and put them to use for public benefit. It resonates directly with Joel’s own personal experience. We hope that it will enable more lawyers to work in the highest traditions of their calling, using the law for justice rather than only for those most able to pay.

We believe that our work applies Joel’s values to the world today. The Covid pandemic has demonstrated again how intertwined society is, within and between all the countries of the world. And it has shown the fatal consequences of the inequality that is spiralling upwards almost everywhere. We encourage people to tackle the causes of injustice in the hope that, together, we can take another step towards realising Nelson Mandela’s ideal.