Dr. Percy Yutar was born on 29 July 1911 in Cape Town. He was one of eight children in a family of Lithuanian immigrants. His father originally spelled his surname as Yuter before arriving in South Africa. Yutar was South Africa’s first Jewish Attorney-General. As a young man, his left hand was caught in an electric mincing machine when he was helping in his father's butcher shop, leaving his hand badly mangled.
Yutar studied at the University of Cape Town (UCT) on a scholarship where he was awarded a Doctorate in Law. At that time, Jews, however, were not welcome in the higher echelons of South Africa's civil service, and Yutar settled for a job tracing defaulting telephone subscribers for the postal service.
Yutar who would become a Chief Prosecutor on the Rivonia Trial began his career as a lawyer in Johannesburg and later became a junior law clerk in Pretoria’s Palace of Justice. In 1940, he was appointed a junior State Prosecutor and eventually became the Deputy Attorney General for the Transvaal.
He often experienced anti-Semitism. Subsequently he was forbidden from joining the Attorney General's office in Cape Town because a Jew appearing for the state in court was abhorrent at the time.
In 1963, Yutar prosecuted Nelson Mandela during the Rivonia Treason Trial and wanted the death sentence for him. Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage as a result of the trial. Many people believed that he was indifferent towards Apartheid. On his closing remarks during the Rivonia Trial he said; “At the outset of my argument I said that this case was one of High Treason par excellence. Because of the people who have lost their lives and suffered injury as a result of the activities of the accused it is apparent that this case is now one of murder and attempted murder as well.
I make bold to say that every particular allegation in the indictment has been proved. There is not a single material allegation in the opening address that has not been proved. On the evidence it is clear that without the action of the police, South Africa might have found itself in a bloody civil war. The public owes a great debt of gratitude to the police...”
Decades later, Mandela showed kindness towards Yutar. In November 1995, just months after he was inaugurated as the South African President, Mandela invited Yutar to lunch. Mandela agreed with Yutar that he (Yutar) had played a minor role in the conviction and was doing his duty as prosecutor. After the lunch with Mandela, Yutar, who once accused Mandela of being a Communist stooge plotting a bloody revolution, pronounced the President ''a saintly man.”
Yutar kept a valuable bundle of papers that included a handwritten Mandela diary, a transcript of the trial, Mandela’s four-hour speech delivered from the dock, and a number of photographs. Yutar later tried to get rid of these collected papers, and others, by putting them on sale to the highest bidder.
Yutar died on 13 July 2002 at an age of 90.
Erasmus J. (2008), ‘SA heritage comes home’, from Media Club South Africa, 02 November, [online], Available at www.mediaclubsouthafrica.com[Accessed: 27 February 2012]|Jew Age, ‘Percy Yutar’, [online], Available at www.jewage.org[Accessed: 27 February 2012]|Hepple B. ‘People: Rivonia Trial 1963-1964’, from South African History Online, [online], Available at www.sahistory.org.za[Accessed: 27 February 2012]|Goldman A.L. (2002), ‘Percy Yutar, 90, Prosecutor Of Mandela in South Africa’, from New York Times, 21 July, [online], Available at www.nytimes.com[Accessed: 27 February 2012]|Law2, ‘The Trial of Nelson Mandela (Rivonia Trial): Closing Statement of Percy Yutar’,[online], Available at www.law2.umkc.edu[Accessed: 27 February 2012]