Since childhood Joel Joffe had rebelled against injustice and, growing up in South Africa, had seen inequality codified into the apartheid system. After qualifying as a lawyer he had tried to redress the balance and help the have-nots by establishing a legal aid practice.
But by the 1960s Joffe – who has died aged 85 – despaired that change would ever come to South Africa. The country was in turmoil and the police were clamping down on all opposition, but especially the African National Congress. Joffe was all set to emigrate to Australia when he was approached by Winnie Mandela, and asked to organise the defence of her husband Nelson and nine other prominent ANC leaders the government was hoping to silence for good.
He didn’t know it at the time but Joffe was about to play a leading role in one of South Africa’s most momentous events, the Rivonia trial. Mandela would later describe him as “the general behind the scenes in our defence” but with his usual self-deprecation, Joffe always played down his own role.
The State wanted to destroy the ANC and was pressing for the death sentence, Mandela and his co-accused wanted, as Joffe would say later, “to put the Government in the dock” and were willing to die for their cause. “The nine members of the ANC were the finest people I had ever met,” Joffe would recall years later. “They were in it for the people. It was a great privilege to defend them.”
The trial marked a watershed moment in South African history: Mandela and his co-accused succeeded in exposing to the world the iniquities of the apartheid regime and, thanks to Joffe and his team, were spared the gallows.
Mandela returned to Robben Island, the prison that would be his home for 27 years, while Joffe appeared to be – at long last – bound for Australia. The SA government could not wait to be shot of this troublesome lawyer and issued him and his family with an exit visa, guaranteeing safety provided they never returned.
But Australia turned them down as “undesirable immigrants”, and it was the UK that offered a safe haven, for which Joffe would remain forever grateful.
Joel Goodman Joffe was the son of a Latvia-born businessman, Abraham, and Dena, the daughter of Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, the ‘father’ of modern Jewish musicology who was said to have composed Hava Nagila when living in Palestine.
After moving to South Africa Idelsohn would be responsible for introducing the Reform Jewish movement to the country and as a result, recalled Joffe, he was forced to attend synagogue regularly as a boy with his family but stopped going after his barmitzvah.
Although his parents were “ill-suited”, Joffe described his childhood as “uneventful” rather than unhappy before he was sent to a Catholic boarding school – the Marist Brothers College – at the age of nine. It was there that he developed his rebellious streak and as a result was often caned.
After studying business and law at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, he started practising as a lawyer. But when his pro-bono work put him on a collision course with the firm’s partners, he joined the practice of two radical lawyers, Harold Wolpe and James Kantor.
When his two colleagues were arrested by the police swooping on ANC sympathisers, Joffe was ready to step up for the defence. Then Winnie Mandela approached him and the rest, as they say, is history.
So in 1965, almost by accident, Joffe found himself living in the UK with his artist wife Vanetta, and young daughters. Having to provide for his family and unable to practice as a lawyer without retraining, he teamed up with a friend from university, Mark Weinberg to work in insurance.
Together they founded, Hambro Life Assurance, later to become Allied Dumbar, an extremely successful insurance company. However, Joffe always maintained that it happened in spite of his “modest talent” and that his life had been “dictated by chance and good fortune”.
He didn’t really want to be in business; it was just a way to support his family. He appeased his guilt about earning so much money by giving much of it away and Hambro was one the first UK companies to donate a percentage of its profits to charity. Joffe never stopped encouraging others to give too, leading by example with his Joffe Charitable Trust, which dispensed millions mainly to unfashionable cases, often from the African continent.
In 1980 he started a long association with Oxfam and is credited with helping it become more efficient. A member of the Royal Commission for the Care of the Elderly from 1997 to 1999, he campaigned tirelessly to give terminally ill people the right to end their lives.
Awarded a CBE in 1999, he was made a Labour peer as Baron Joffe of Liddington in the County of Wiltshire in 2000. From the Lords he continued his fight to allow the terminally ill freedom of choice and put forward a private members bill on assisted dying twice, in 2003 and 2005.
Joffe married Vanetta Pretorius in 1962. She survives him together with their three daughters: Lisa, Abigail and Deborah and four grandchildren.
Joel Goodman Joffe; born May 12, 1932. Died June 18, 2017.