Ken Broun Offers Insight Into "Saving Nelson Mandela"

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Saving Nelson Mandela book cover

I am delighted that UNC School of Law has chosen my book, Saving Nelson Mandela, as the selection for this years Admitted Students Book Club. I intended for the book to be a story about people who fought against the tyranny of a brutal government and a racist system. Some of those were activists who were in the front lines. Others were lawyers who gave the best that they had, both to save the lives of their clients and to help them promote the cause in which both lawyers and clients believed.

In 1963, when Nelson Mandela and nine others were charged with the crime of sabotage under a recently enacted South African statute, most people in that nation and around the world expected that the defendants would be hanged. The defendant had, most certainly, committed acts that would constitute a violation of the statute. The statute clearly provided for the death penalty as an option for the trial judge.

Something happened during the course of the trial that changed the outcome from death to life imprisonment. All of the eight defendants convicted served intolerably long sentences, ranging from 22 to 27 years. Yet, all survived their prison ordeal to emerge as leaders of a new, democratic South Africa. In particular, Nelson Mandela lived to provide leadership to a nation in the negotiations that led to a largely peaceful transition to democracy. As the world knows, he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president and a symbol of freedom and perseverance for the world. Without his leadership, death and destruction were likely to have reigned in all of Southern Africa.

The defense team, led by Bram Fischer, was composed of the best of the South African bar. They were the best not only in terms of their courtroom abilities, but also their work ethic and dedication to the cause of justice.  As you read the book, think about the passion and effort that the lawyers gave to the case. Consider also the careful strategy planned by the lawyers from the beginning of the case. Ask yourselves what tactics and strategies the lawyers decided upon and which ones were the most effective. How much difference did the advocacy of the lawyers make in the final outcome of the case?

Bram Fischer was an Afrikaner whose heritage went back to the roots of the Boer republics who fought against the British in the late nineteenth century. His relatives and the people with whom they identified were the architects and proponents of apartheid. What made him so radically different from many of his compatriots?

Note also the care with which the lawyers treated the Afrikaner trial judge. The judge was the sole decision maker in the case. Did he ever really come around to see the defendant’s plight or did he come around enough simply to save their lives? How much do you think he was influenced by factors outside the courtroom?

Also think about other instances in which lawyers of skill, courage and devotion to the law have made a difference not only for their clients, but for the world.

I hope these observations and questions help generate some thoughts of your own. If so, please share them in the comments below and/or via Twitter (#unclawbookclub) and Facebook. I look forward to engaging in further conversation with you.

Posted by Kenneth S. Broun (Ken) on Fri. June 27, 2014 10:00 AM
Categories: Book Club


RE: Ken Broun Offers Insight Into 'Saving Nelson Mandela'
As someone with limited knowledge about the political and legal history of South Africa, I appreciated this book for its clear and thorough recount of the Rivonia Trial. More than anything, I love how the book focuses on the individuals who comprise the trial. The other evening I was with a group of friends who were jokingly trying to decide what type of lawyer I should become. When someone mentioned a trial lawyer, this idea was immediately rebuffed. Because, as my friends stated, I am too “compassionate.” I do not know what type of law I want to practice, but it is interesting to me that compassion is a term not usually associated with lawyers. I just finished reading A Civil Action, which in many ways portrays Schlichtmann as an attorney driven by money and power. Although Schlichtmann devoted his entire self to his case, I think there is something to say about what motivates us. The entire time I was reading your book I could not get over how dedicated and selfless the defendants and defense lawyers were; this was an interesting contrast from Schlichtmann. There are undoubtedly many factors that went into the final sentencing of the Rivonia Trial. We cannot disregard the influence of international pressures and the well thought-out tactics of the defense team. But even at the root of these other factors lies compassion. The protests of the international community were driven by compassion for the South African people. The thought-out tactics of the defense team were driven by lawyers trying to find a balance between saving their clients’ lives, while simultaneously taking a stand against apartheid. If the defense lawyers had not been so invested in their clients’ cause, I seriously question whether they would have been able to successfully portray their clients as “…worthy of continuing existence” (146). As your book notes, the defense team made it extremely challenging for the judge to ignore that Mandela and his peers were intelligent individuals deserving of life. As I prepare for law school there are so many thoughts and feelings entering my mind. It is easy to slip into self-doubt, and to begin questioning whether I am fit to serve as an attorney. So I just want to say thank you for reminding me that there are many attorneys driven by compassion and a genuine commitment to justice.
Posted by Hannah Smoot on Thu. July 3, 2014 10:10 AM
RE: Ken Broun Offers Insight Into 'Saving Nelson Mandela'
Hannah, many thanks for your thoughtful comments on my book. It was one of my fondest hopes that the account of the trial would inspire young lawyers to careers of compassion and commitment. The lawyers in the Rivonia case exemplify the very best of our profession. I was privileged to know Arthur Chaskalson well and to get to know George Bizos and Joel Joffe. I'm sorry I never met Bram Fischer. If you were looking for role models, these people are as good as any. Another person you should investigate is Matilda Masipa, the judge in the Oscar Pistorius case. Another wonderful example of the best the legal profession has to offer. She was a student of mine back in the apartheid days. -Ken Broun
Posted by Allison L. Reid on Thu. July 3, 2014 6:25 PM
RE: Ken Broun Offers Insight Into 'Saving Nelson Mandela'
Similar to Hannah, I was not as well educated as I would have liked to be on the Rivonia Trial prior to reading your book. However I am now completely enthralled with the individuals who were involved in the trial, specifically Justice Quartus de Wet. I wondered myself about his thought process throughout the trial. In the beginning of the trial, I was under the impression that he had already made his decision for how he would rule. As you stated within the second chapter, de Wet was known to make up his mind about a case rapidly and additionally he held the same prejudices as the white population within South Africa. Although as the trial continued it was as if, perhaps for the first time, he was not sure whether his preconceived opinion about the case was correct or not. I contemplated whether the immense outside influence from the government, media, public and international actors influenced his final judgment. However I don’t believe that it did based off the information I learned from your book. I truly due believe that the defendants’ sincere and truthful testimonies and statements, as well as the lack of effort put forth by the Prosecution swayed de Wet from the prejudices he held in the beginning of the trial. I know there is very limited information about de Wet as he declined to do interviews or talk further about this case. However since you were able to meet some of the defense team, did you ever have the chance to meet de Wet? Additionally I am interested to know your opinion about him, specifically regarding his role in the Rivonia Trial.
Posted by Breegan O'Connor on Mon. July 7, 2014 12:57 PM
RE: Ken Broun Offers Insight Into 'Saving Nelson Mandela'
Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Breegan. Justice de Wet had passed away long before I started my research for the book, so I never had a chance to meet him. The lawyers involved had mixed reactions to him. On one day, he seemed sympathetic to the defense; the next day antagonistic. I think he was often hostile to the prosecution, although I have always suspected some anti-Semitism in his reaction to Yutar. But Yutar was a hard guy to like, completely apart from prejudice and there were Jewish people on the defense side as well. I think, all and all, he tried to do what he thought was right. in some ways, I would compare him to F.W. deKlerk, who negotiated the transition with Mandela despite his own prejudices. It was the right thing to do at the time. I give both men my somewhat reluctant admiration. -Ken Broun
Posted by Allison L. Reid on Tue. July 8, 2014 9:46 AM
RE: Ken Broun Offers Insight Into 'Saving Nelson Mandela'
I enjoyed reading 'Saving Nelson Mandela,' and like the comments above, I didn't know much about this trial before reading. One thing that struck me was the lack of fairness granted to the defendants, especially before the trial. The 90-day detention, the inability of advocates to prepare with their clients before trial and the trial scheduling process, among other procedural hurdles, seemed to disadvantage the defense before the trial began. Those structural impediments stood out in my mind when reading later in the book about the independence of the South African judiciary and how the country's laws could maintain an independent -- though unfair, at times -- judicial process. The book did a good job explaining the different pressures at play during the trial, and I found interesting the defense's strategy to admit some of the charges and instead focus on avoiding a death penalty and using the trial to highlight apartheid. Toward the end of the book, I did wonder what other impacts the sabotage laws had in South Africa (How many others were charged under them? Were they found guilty? What penalties did they face?). The book did touch on its ability to survive under the country's new constitution in the '90s, and I found that helpful.
Posted by Matt Tomsic on Sun. July 13, 2014 6:25 PM

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