Mandela and me: journalist's insights into the anti-apartheid struggle

Former Editor, Benjamin Pogrund (Photo: Flix'n'Pix)

Former Editor, Benjamin Pogrund (Photo: Flix'n'Pix)

Benjamin Pogrund, the former deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail during the apartheid era, has heavily criticised the Jewish community for honouring Percy Yutar, the first Jewish Attorney General in South Africa and the man responsible for prosecuting Nelson Mandela.

Speaking at his Limmud session about what it was like as a journalist under apartheid, Mr. Pogrund said: "[Percy Yutar] was loved by the security police. They told me they loved him because he did their bidding. What they wanted, he did, including all his histrionics in court.

"He prosecuted Mandela, and although he later denied it, he created the climate in that court where the death penalty was a possibility. Nelson was only saved because throughout the world there were protests from governments.

"I declare a personal interest. During that trial he attacked me even though I wasn't a party to the trial. I sued him all the way to the highest court where I got damages against him. It didn't affect his career and the government paid his costs, but at least I kicked him somewhat.

"All this time he was honoured by the Jewish community. For about 11 years he was chairman of the United Hebrew Congregation, which was a collection of Orthodox synagogues in Johannesburg. I think that was as low as the Jewish community could get. That says a lot about what the Jewish community was [like] in that era."

Mr. Pogrund went on to say that the community has changed since then and they are "regretful" of their past positions and actions.

The former editor, based in Johannesburg and later chief sub-editor of the
Independent in London, also spoke candidly and at length about apartheid-era prison conditions, strikes, police raids, informants and spies for the security police within his own newspaper.

Mr. Pogrund knew Nelson Mandela well, describing the young ANC leader as "tall, imposing and good looking".

In one incident, where the Rand Daily Mail did not question an official police statement and incorrectly printed a story saying a major strike by black workers had failed, Mr Pogrund said he received a memorable phone call from Mr Mandela.

"It was Mandela - warm and cheerful as ever," he said. "I started stammering an apology saying 'Nelson, we've done the most terrible thing. Then he said to me: 'it's alright Benji-boy, I know it wasn't your fault.' It was an act of such supreme generosity. He spent months risking his life and limb, and he forgave me just like that."

Last updated: 2:10pm, December 26 2013