‘They Put the Government on Trial’: Reflections From Nelson Mandela’s Attorney

By | Dec 05, 2016

In 1963, Nelson Mandela was on trial for trying to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid government. When asked to plead guilty or not guilty, he took an unusual approach: He said that the government, not him, should be in the dock.

“There was no jury in those days in South Africa, and the judge was the chief justice in the province where the trial was being held,” says Nat Levy, one of the attorneys on Mandela’s defense team. “To say that in front of a government-appointed judge at a time like that, in 1963, was a pretty bold statement to make when you’re on trial for your life.”

Levy, a Jewish lawyer from Cape Town who now lives in Texas, served as Mandela’s attorney of record in Pretoria. He attended the famous trial and got to know Mandela, who would serve 27 years in prison. In 1994, four years after his release, Mandela became South Africa’s first black head of state. He died on December 5, 2013—three years ago today. Moment speaks with Levy about the trial, Mandela’s legacy and modern-day prejudice and civil rights.

How did you come to represent Mandela?

I was an attorney in South Africa and had taken on some cases that involved civil rights. I was also very active in the party that became the official opposition to the South African government, which was known as the Progressive Party. I was known to be an anti-apartheid activist, and I got to know Nelson Mandela because he used to send me work that he needed done in Pretoria, which is where I practiced. I did some work for him before this trial started—it had nothing to do with the trial, but it did have to do with civil rights matters. I also did work for a firm involving the person who became the coordinating attorney for all the defendants, Joel Joffe. He knew a little bit about my activities and background, and when the Rivonia trial came about, he asked me if I would be the Pretoria attorney of record in the case.

I was only 27 years old at the time, and so I was not a lead attorney in the case. My role was more administrative than anything else. I attended the trial throughout, and had a number of occasions where I was able to speak one-on-one with Mandela and got to know him and his co-defendants.

What was Nelson Mandela like one-on-one?

He was always very, very courteous. He did have sort of a mischievous sense of humor, which came through at times. He had a very regal appearance about him; when he walked and sat he was always upright. You could feel his presence. He was quietly spoken. He wasn’t one of these loud-mouth activist-type people. But when he talked, people really did listen. Whatever he said was said in a quiet but firm way.

What was the atmosphere like at the trial?

Most of the trial, from the very beginning, was very tense. The atmosphere, at times, you could cut with a knife, because both sides were the opposite not only on legal points but from their political perspectives. They were totally at odds with each other. There were some lighter moments, but it was mostly a sense of tension and anticipation and uncertainty as to what would happen, both during trial and after the trial.

This was probably the most important political trial ever in South Africa. The government was in fact on trial, what it did that caused Mandela and others to try to overthrow the system. That was an incredibly important part of the whole case for the defense, that they put the government on trial.

Remembering the conversations you had with Mandela, are there any that particularly stand out?

We were consulting with him in the Pretoria jail, and there was one question that I remember very clearly. I said to him, “Nelson, you had such an enormous following among your people. Why did you not negotiate the freedom of your people with the South African government?” His response was immediate. He said, “The South African government is absolutely not negotiable, and always has been on this topic. And the only way that me and my people could get their attention was through committing acts of sabotage and civil unrest and protests. We continued to do that until we not only got their attention, but got things to change for the better in South Africa.”


Nat Levy. Credit: TLC Wealth Management, Inc.

You met Mandela for a second time, in the 1990s, after he was released from prison. How did that meeting go?

I was invited to a luncheon where he was the guest of honor shortly after his release from prison. I had an opportunity to actually sit down with him and chat about the trial. He greeted me very, very warmly, which I appreciated. I didn’t even think he’d remember me after all he’d been through. We reminisced about the trial, about the people in it and about South Africa then versus what it might become.

What do you think is Nelson Mandela’s legacy?

Nelson Mandela changed attitudes in South Africa. South Africa had been on the brink of a civil war for years. As I recollect, approximately 20 percent of the population, the white population, governed the total population; the non-whites constituted about 70 to 80 percent of the population and had no major civil rights at all. They couldn’t vote, they were told where they were allowed to live, they could not find readily available jobs, they had to carry a passbook (like a passport) with them wherever they went. If they didn’t have it on them, they could be jailed—and were jailed. There were all sorts of statutes and rules that were part of the apartheid system. So in that atmosphere, there was a lot of distrust and even hatred, not only black versus white or white versus black, but even within the black tribes, the non-white tribes, there was a lot of bad blood. So attitudes had to change across tribal lines and across color lines and certainly across political lines.

Nelson Mandela—with others, he wasn’t the only person involved, but he was main figurehead—achieved attitudinal changes. People realized that the power of forgiveness was the key to changing attitudes in South Africa. It was a lesson to the world, in my opinion, as to how you can take a country from the brink of civil war to a constitution that’s probably one of the finest constitutions, from a civil rights perspective, in the world, and give South Africa an opportunity to move ahead and eventually prosper. It’s also a lesson to the world that nothing is a hopeless situation when it comes to relationships, whether it be family, countries, religious groups, you name it. If there’s a will to change it, it can be changed.

As a Jew, what did representing Mandela mean for you?

The police had a file on me, they watched my movements, they listened to my phone calls. But I don’t think they did it because I was Jewish; they did it because I was against the apartheid system. It was not a popular thing to do as an attorney, to take on that case as a defense lawyer. Pretoria is the administrative seat of government in South Africa and I had a lot of friends in government positions, including cabinet ministers. They raised more than an eyebrow when they knew that I was involved with the case.

In South Africa, there was an attitude of anti-Semitism among some people, but it wasn’t prevalent. We had to be vigilant. I was involved in the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. A lot of Nazis came to South Africa, in transit to South America, after World War II, and we organized to try to keep tabs on them.

What can Mandela’s legacy teach us about combatting anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice?

Whether it’s anti-Semitism or anti-anything, very often the basis of it is ignorance and failure to communicate, whether that applies to a marriage or a people. For example: In Israel, there are a series of schools called Hand in Hand. They’re wonderful schools, and they educate Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis side-by-side in the classrooms. The parents buy into the situation. They communicate, they air their fears and apprehensions and they talk openly. They have achieved wonderful relationships in the school, just by putting people together and enabling them to talk to each other, to understand each other and communicate properly with each other.

I experienced something like this myself. There was no Jewish day school when I was growing up in South Africa. A good education was provided by a Catholic school, known as the Christian Brothers College, and my parents sent me there mainly for the education. It was the best thing they could have done for me. I learned to appreciate what Christianity is all about and how Christian people think, and they learned understand a little bit more about Judaism.

Considering the many forms of persecution the Jewish people have faced throughout their history, what did it mean for you to be a part of the trial? Has Judaism influenced your outlook on civil rights?

Very much so. I went to this Catholic boys school, and my very first real fight at school occured when I was in the fourth grade. I walked into the classroom and there was a bunch of guys that were ganging up and bullying this one German kid who was in the class, and I was the only Jewish kid in the class. They were saying to him: “You’re a Nazi!” And I went to the leader of this little gang of guys and asked him what he thought he was doing. I said, “He’s a German; that doesn’t mean he’s a Nazi.” So I guess I was taught at an early age to look out for the underdog.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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