A Lawyer’s Odyssey: Mandela, Apartheid and Beyond

Henry Brown Memoirs – Author: Henry Brown

Writing about one’s participation in a freedom movement over 50 years after one’s first representation as a lawyer for a political prisoner is not an easy task, particularly when it is done in exile and when most of the people one represented are no longer alive. In his book A Lawyer’s Odyssey: Apartheid, Mandela and Beyond (Otterley Press, Pietermaritzburg 2020), South African-born lawyer, Henry Brown, does this with consummate skill. Depending on his excellent memory supported by information from websites of various organizations, Brown provides us with a very rich narrative of events through which we are able to connect many of the dots of a picture that was not very clear before. He gives us an idea of the different activities that were taking place within and outside South Africa both before and following the incarceration of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island in 1964.

With a foreword by leading South African political activist, freedom fighter, lawyer and later judge, Albie Sachs, who refers to the memoir as being “totally free of forensic vainglory,” the book takes us through various epochs in the apartheid saga. Taking us back to his early life as a newly qualified lawyer working at the ground level as a front-line worker with the Cape Town legal firm of Frank Bernadt and Joffe, Brown gives us a good idea of what life was like in the Cape in the early days of apartheid. Referring to his firm as FB&J whose senior partner, Himie Bernadt was “a man of great principle, integrity and wisdom” who was always around and was a source of great inspiration, Brown speaks of his early experiences defending the average person against the ravages of apartheid as enacted by the South African Police and the petty officials whose bureaucratic abuse at the cost of the non-Whites kept the system of racial discrimination alive.

Brown then gives us a good background to the apartheid state taking us back to the famous Treason Trial that lasted from 1956-1961 giving us snippets of the type of work he did in helping marginalised people find their feet. This included teaching African dock workers to read and write. He was concerned very early on in his legal career with how the policy of the South African government was encroaching on people’s basic civil liberties. Some of the examples he cites will resonate with many non-white people who lived during that period and were victims of the draconian legislation that affected their lives in myriad ways. Many left the country in the 1960s and just heard of later developments in exile. As a legal trainee with FB&J, Brown, though in a mixed legal practice, found himself being drawn into a number of political cases.

The book then segues into the Sharpeville Massacre of March 1960 where 69 innocent people were killed and another 180 mercilessly wounded by the Security Police. Sharpeville and its aftermath suddenly exposed Brown to a new world of which he had now become an integral part — “the Kgosana march and trial, the state of Emergency, the detention of our senior partner’s wife [referring  to Jean Bernadt, Himie Bernadt’s wife], the referendum transforming the country into a republic — and for me , a year of immersion into some very challenging court work, even before my career as a court lawyer had started.” This was the exciting world which he was going to inhabit for the next 50 years. In the post-Sharpeville period, Brown encounters Neville Rubin, a fellow articled clerk and together they bring an action in court to impugn the legality of a nationwide banning order and actually win the case! As it transpired, Rubin became a political activist and had to leave South Africa only to meet Brown again later in England where the two of them became actively involved in providing legal defence to political prisoners in South Africa. Their friendship endured for over 60 years.

The book highlights some interesting cases, one of which was representing Albie Sachs, detained under the so called 90-Day Detention Act. Brown describes in detail the Kafkaesque atmosphere of the notorious Cape Town Police headquarters in Caledon Square as he accompanied Albie’s mother, Ray to try and pay a visit to Albie. There are other cases such as the defence of Coleman Gacula whom Brown managed to free from prison on a suspended sentence as well as assisting with the defence of the Cape Town University lecturer, Alan Brooks, and the 22-year-old physiotherapist, Stephanie Kemp, both detained under the same Act. During all this time, Brown tests the South African laws and the legal system which according to Albie Sachs, showed that “there is [still] scope for law, even in the midst of tyranny”. While many of the political cases were fought in the Transvaal, Brown found himself defending political prisoners in the Cape as that was where most of them arrived after being sentenced elsewhere in South Africa. In the Cape, Brown spent his energy as a lawyer defending political prisoners who were being victimized by petty bureaucratic officials of the apartheid state who used these rules to harass them.

While most of his cases had to deal with petty apartheid in mid-1960, Brown was involved with some significant matters such as the defence of leading South African non-white novelist Alex La Guma and his wife Blanche who were held under the 180-Day Detention Act when the Security Police tried to extract a statement through coercion from Alex La Guma’s wife Blanche with their home raided and both of them detained. Albie Sachs was briefed to represent Blanche who received a caution – the minimum sentence that a magistrate could impose. The case attracted an editorial in the Cape Times, the influential English-language newspaper, exhorting responsible citizens to be wary of their civil liberties reminding them how petty and vindictive the apartheid state had become in prosecuting individuals for trivial offences which had nothing to do with the security of the state. The book highlights similar cases such as Brown’s representation of Billy Nair, whose harassment was referred to him by a firm of Indian lawyers from Natal.

During all this time, Brown witnesses the arrogance of the functionaries of the apartheid state, such as referring to an individual African as ‘boy’ regardless of his age or educational background and was appalled when this was in reference to the second most important political prisoner on the Island, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, whom Brown later represented in a libel case when he (Brown) ended up in England. It was this deeply embedded structural discrimination embedded in the psyche of the apartheid state and in the criminal justice system of South Africa that Brown sought to fight.  During the 1960s Brown represented a number of cases including of a couple, Alfred Binks who was charged with his partner, Jennifer de Doncker under the Immorality Act of 1957 which prohibited sexual relations between a White and a non-White for which the statutory punishment was a maximum seven -year prison sentence. It was against this background, that Brown is instructed by Nelson Mandela who asked him (Brown) to represent him for disciplinary proceedings in the Robben Island Prison Court. Given the heavy odds against getting a fair trial, Brown on losing the case had a choice of advising Mandela to go for an appeal but, on realising that an appeal to a magistrate could leave the prisoner exposed to higher sentencing powers who could enforce punishments such as whipping, he cautioned Mandela against such action.

Brown also advised Mandela on an application by the State to strike him off the roll of attorneys – later dropped by the State; and he met Mandela to take instructions about guardianship arrangements for his minor children. From correspondence that has come to light some 55 years later through the Mandela Foundation Papers, Brown has come to realise that Mandela referred to him as his “Cape Town Attorney”. Mandela’s Johannesburg lawyer Joel Carlson also asked Brown to represent Winnie Mandela on a charge of breaching a banning order, something Winnie was often accused of doing, given the very intricate and almost impossible conditions placed on freedom of movement and its curtailment as imposed in the orders.

While the book chronicles a number of cases, one that stands out is the murder in detention of the imam Abdullah Haron at the hands of the Security Police and how Brown ensured that the family’s pathologist would attend the post-mortem, and, working alongside Himie Bernadt, retained Wilfred Cooper SC, a leading lawyer, to attend the inquest on behalf of the Haron’s widow. Forensic witnesses were presented at the inquest, but the finding of “accidental death” was recorded. This too gave rise to an editorial by the Cape Times warning that “The Government will be failing in its duty if it does not appoint an authoritative Judicial Commission to determine beyond doubt how Haron came to die [and]why it took nearly five months to hold the inquest…”

The book is replete with anecdotes of Brown’s resettlement in the United Kingdom, requalifying as a solicitor, being a point of reference for the defence of political prisoners in South Africa, acting on behalf of representatives of the South-West African Peoples Organisation in exile, and crossing paths with South African government spy Craig Williamson. The narrative covers Brown’s foray into the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution and his important contribution to its development both in family and commercial dispute areas. It also highlights Brown’s philosophical take on questions of law, justice, politics, and humanity showing his deep and abiding commitment to compassion which has always underpinned his practice of the law.

This book is a worthy read not only to show us how many individuals such as the author risked their own lives and the lives of their loved ones to serve the anti-apartheid cause but how countless others in exile did the same to put an end to one of the most horrendous blights of the 20th century. In addition to the relentless courage shown by the political prisoners at Robben Island and the youths who died in Soweto, it shows that apartheid was vanquished through the struggles of millions of other people who lobbied at the UN in New York and the World Council of Churches in Geneva as well as at numerous youth rallies and music concerts across the world. These were the unsung heroes of the freedom struggle. It is through books such as these that we come to realise how abhorrent to the human spirit this racist ideology actually was. Brown’s own commitment to eradicating apartheid, even after he left South Africa, attests to his courage in fighting it all the way — even at the cost of his own and his family’s security. An excellent read, A Lawyer’s Odyssey: Mandela, Apartheid and Beyond is available in South Africa from the publishers Otterley Press (https://www.otterley.com/) and elsewhere throughout the world via the book’s website at https://lawyersodyssey.mystrikingly.com