Joffe was born to a Jewish family on 12 May, 1932 in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng). His father, Abraham Joffe, a businessman, had come from Latvia and his mother, Dena (nee Idelson), from Palestine. After a Catholic boarding school, the Marist Brothers College, Joffe studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, qualified as a solicitor in 1956 and six years later was called to the South African bar.

In his autobiography, Mandela described Joffe’s role as being “the general behind the scenes in our defence“.

The South African-born human rights lawyer played a crucial role in the defence team when Nelson Mandela and his comrades were tried for sabotage in the Rivonia Trial between 1963 and 1964.

Mandela’s wife, Winnie approached him to defend her husband in the Rivonia Trial, where several leading members of the African National Congress (ANC) liberation movement were facing charges.

Joffe was also the defence attorney of two Robben Islanders, namely, Ahmed Kathrada and Laloo Chiba.

“For me, it was about saving the lives of these wonderful people,” Joffe told BBC radio in 2007. “The nine members of the ANC were the finest people I had ever met — such courage, such integrity, so committed... It was a great privilege to defend them.” Following the trial, South Africa offered him the opportunity to leave as long as he never returned.

He left the country soon after the trial for Australia which denied him citizenship. He then moved to Britain in 1965 where he settled.

Joffe co-founded what became the Allied Dunbar life assurance group in 1970 and later became a parliamentarian spearheading the campaign for assisted dying for the terminally ill.

He was made a Peer of the Labour Party in the House of Lords, and was awarded a CBE by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000.

Kathrada took Joffe and his wife Venetta on a Robben Island tour in 1995, one that left Joffe with a renewed sense “of how fortunate South Africa was to have leaders on Robben Island with such courage, integrity, vision and solidarity”.

Neeshan Balton, from the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, said,

Kathrada, in his memoirs, referred to Joffe’s assessment of the Rivonia Trial, noting that Joffe was inspired by Walter Sisulu’s composure in the witness box as he was grilled by State prosecutor Percy Yutar. Balton noted that the last time Kathrada had met Joffe was in 2016‚ when they both received the Freedom of the City of London along with surviving Rivonia Trialists‚ Andrew Mlangeni and Denis Goldberg‚ as well as remaining Rivonia defence attorney‚ George Bizos.

Joffe was appointed a member of the British parliament’s upper House of Lords in 2000, sitting for the Labour Party. He was made a Lord in 2000.

Lord Joffe was the chairperson of Oxfam, a British aid agency from 1995 to 2001.

Leading British anti-apartheid campaigner Peter Hain said:

Joffe was an iconic figure who never sought the limelight — he just supported everybody else. Joffe was a totally generous person, warm, passionate, and he continued to fly the flag for the anti-apartheid struggle and subsequently the new South Africa.

In 2007, Lord Joffe wrote a book about his experiences entitled “The State vs. Nelson Mandela: The trial that changed South Africa“.

In its foreword, Mandela wrote that the book would serve as “one of the most reliable sources for understanding what happened at that trial and how we came to live and see democracy triumph in South Africa“.

He became a champion of tertiary education for extremely disadvantaged South African children through the Community and Individual Development Association (Cida) United Kingdom Foundation that supported the Cida City Campus in Johannesburg.

In 2010, the South African Government conferred the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo, Silver on Lord Joel Joffe for his excellent contribution to the struggle against racial oppression in South Africa.

Lord Joffe retired from the House of Lords in 2015 and was awarded the freedom of the City of London the following year.

Lord Joel Joffe passed away on 18 June 2017, London, United Kingdom. He is survived by his wife Vanetta and their three daughters, Lisa, Abigail and Deborah, and four grandchildren.

(L-R) South African politician Ahmed Kathrada and South African social campaigner Denis Goldberg, both who were active in the anti-apartheid struggle and formerly imprisoned with Nelson Mandela at Robben Island, along with members of their legal defence team South African-born British lawyer Joel Joffe and lawyer George Bizos, pose holding certificates of their award of the Freedom of the City of London during a ceremony at the Guildhall in London on January 27, 2016. The four along with a third former prisoner Andrew Mlangeni, who was unable to attend, received their awards in recognition of their fight for freedom and racial equality. Picture: AFP Image source

Collections in the Archives