James Kantor was born on 26 February 1927 in Johannesburg to Abraham Kantor, a lawyer and Pauline ‘Polly’ (Braude) Kantor. James Kantor was one of Johannesburg’s best-known and successful lawyers who got lucrative cases and big name clients. He had his own firm, James Kantor & Partners, in Johannesburg. He excelled as a divorce lawyer. He usually represented the wife and, at a time when women were second-class citizens at best, he invariably won for his clients a decent share of assets.
In 1962, he married Barbara, a part-time model and actor, who had two sons from a previous marriage. Kantor did not much care about was politics, although he did not like the thuggish behaviour and arrogance of the new Special Branch police. As a Jew, he was aware of the anti-Semitism rampant in their ranks. When Nelson Mandela became a lawyer, Kantor was one of the first people to offer his congratulations.
He invited his brother-in-law, Harold Wolpe, a highly respected lawyer, who was married to his sister AnnMarie Kantor, to join him as a partner in 1959. From the outset, Wolpe made it clear that he planned to devote a large portion of his time defending his political comrades in court. Kantor admired Wolpe’s idealism and his integrity. His brother-in-law, he would boast, seemed impervious to the urge to make money. He agreed that Wolpe could go on defending political cases pro bono, but he insisted that Wolpe agree not to take unnecessary risks or do anything that would jeopardise Kantor’s position as senior member of the practice.
In his memoir, A Healthy Grave – An Apartheid Prison Memoir, published in 1969, Kantor says that he was unaware that Wolpe was involved with uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the African National Congress’s (ANC) military wing. Nor, he writes, did he realise that Wolpe had used the firm to set up the dummy company and launder the funds that paid for the purchase of Lilliesleaf Farm, where the MK High Command was based. At the same time, however, Kantor was a secret financial contributor to the resistance movement, someone whom Ivan Schermbrucker, a South African Communist Party (SACP) member””a neighbour and friend of Hilda and Lionel ‘Rusty” Bernstein who helped raised money for the cause””could count on when someone needed to make bail or when relatives of a detainee ran short.
On 11 July 1963, the Security Police raided Lilliesleaf Farm. When the police came through the door, they found a group studying ‘Operation Mayibuye’ – an MK proposal for guerrilla warfare, insurrection and revolution. Among the group were Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, Arthur Goldreich, Dennis Goldberg and Lionel ‘Rusty’ Bernstein. Hundreds of incriminating documents were found during the raid and members of the group were immediately arrested.
After Wolpe learnt about the Lilliesleaf Farm arrests, he told Kantor of his involvement with Lilliesleaf Farm. He said the police had discovered enough information to destroy the resistance movement throughout the country, and that it was simply a matter of time before they arrested him. Shortly after, Wolpe was arrested at his office and detained at Marshall Square under the Ninety Day Act. Kantor was arrested in his office and during his detention was carried back and forth between prisons in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
During the court case, known as the Rivonia Trial, the indictment included an additional allegation “regarding the complicity” of the accused James Kantor who was a partner with Harold Wolpe in the firm of James Kantor and Partners as follows:
"(a) Kantor, a senior partner, in his legal practice took into partnership a named communist, and party to the concerted action and common purpose.
(b) The partnership, and Kantor personally, handled many cases in which parties to the concerted action and common purpose, as well as members of the banned South African Communist Party and the African National Congress, were charged with subversive activities."
There was also an attempt to prove criminal liability against James Kantor under Section 381 (7) of Act No. 1956 of 1955, which places an onus on a partner to disprove his criminal responsibility if another partner does a criminal act of the firm. In this case, it was alleged that because the partner Harold Wolpe purchased the Rivonia Farm through his firm of attorneys, this gives the firm a profit and, therefore, the onus was on James Kantor to disprove criminal liability, because the Rivonia Farm was found to be the centre of the major conspiracy.
Represented by Advocate John Coaker, Kantor was released on bail during the Christmas period, however, his bail was rescinded. The Special Branch constantly attempted to get Kantor to snitch on his fellow prisoners, Rusty Bernstein, Robert Hepple and Denis Goldberg. Again, he remained steadfast and did not do so. Hilda Bernstein wrote about the issue in The World That Was Ours.
In January 1964, during the trial, Kantor’s wife Barbara was due to give birth to their first child. Documented in late Former President Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, one morning when they were sitting in the dock, Kantor passed a note down to Mandela. The following exchange happened:
“Barbara and I have discussed godfathers at length and we have come to the conclusion that, whether the baby is a girl or boy, we would consider it an honour if you would agree to accept this office as an adjunct to the more disreputable positions you have held in the past.”
Mandela sent Kantor a note back saying:
“I would be more than delighted, and the honour is mine, not the baby’s. Now they dare not hang me.”
Tanya was born on 30 January 1964, court was adjourned early that day due to it being a Thursday and Kantor was able to make it to the hospital, 10 minutes before she was born.
Not long after his release from prison, he decided that he could no longer live in South Africa. He moved to London with his family but he was a changed man. Kantor wrote of his experiences in A Healthy Grave – An Apartheid Prison Memoir from exile in London six years after the presiding trial Judge, Quartus de Wet, dismissed his charges before sentencing eight of his co-defendants to life in prison. Following his acquittal, he lost his law practice and livelihood.
A Healthy Grave exposed both the evil of apartheid and described in detail the vicious and brutal nature, as well as the racism of some of the security police involved during his arrest and detention. In his memoir, Kantor describes Percy Yutar, the Attorney General in the Rivonia Trial, as follows:
“Yutar is a little tyrant filled with his own importance and a burning desire to become the first Jewish Attorney General ever appointed in South Africa. Of his Jewishness, he makes no secret and professes to be devoutly religious. In fact, he asked to be assigned to the Rivonia Trial in order to vindicate the Jewish community in South Africa and to prove ‘that all Jews are not Communists.”
Despite not being a member of any political organisation, Kantor did not betray those whom he knew were actively fighting against Apartheid during his arrest, detention and even after his release. Former President Mandela said of Kentor:
“He [Kantor] had no involvement whatsoever with the ANC or MK.” “I assumed the only reason the state kept up the charade of prosecuting him was to intimidate progressive lawyers.”
Following his exile to England,Kantor did turn his back on the legal profession – an institution that he had total belief in but proved to him, in a very personal way, that it was a shameful sham in apartheid South Africa. Broken and financially ruined by his experience during incarceration, Kantor went on to rebuild his and his family’s life in England, developing a successful publishing business. He and Barbara went on to have another daughter Lara, in 1968. In 1974, at the age of forty-seven, James Kantor passed away due to multiple heart attacks.
Tanya von Ahlefeldt, James and Barbara’s first daughter and Nelson Mandela’s godchild, currently lives in England with her partner and four daughters. Lara von Ahlefeldt lives in Australia with her partner and two sons.
• Linder D. O, (2012), The Accused: "The Rivonia 11" from Famous Trials - The Nelson Mandela (Rivonia) Trial 1963-64 University Of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School Of Law [online], Available at www.law2.umkc.edu [ Accessed 13 May 2013]
• Frankel, G., (2013), Rivonia’s Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White SA (Jacana Media)
• Email from Tanya von Ahlefeldt to SAHO, dated 17 April 2014