Percy Yutar


Born: Cape Town, 29 July 1911

Died: Johannesburg, 13 July 2002, aged 90

PERCY Yutar was the South African government’s most notorious prosecutor during the apartheid years. His aggressive arraignment at the 1963 Rivonia Treason Trial, one of history’s most famous political trials, sent Accused Number One to prison for life.

Thirty-two years later, Accused Number One, the newly elected first black president of South Africa, invited Yutar to lunch at his presidential residence in Pretoria. Nelson Mandela, in typical forgiving mode, assured Yutar that as chief prosecutor he had only done his duty and had played a "minor role" in sending Accused Number One to Robben Island for the rest of his natural life.

But Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada, Mandela’s senior co-accuseds, were less forgiving. They declined Mandela’s invitation to lunch with Yutar, and Sisulu said: "Yutar wanted to show the [white] Nat [National Party] government that he, as a Jew, was more vicious than anyone else."

When Mandela was taken in chains from Pretoria to Robben Island to serve his life sentence, Yutar was lionised in the media as South Africa’s saviour, the defender of civilisation against the forces of darkness. He encouraged this image at every opportunity by stoking white fears of an imminent bloodbath.

How much of this he actually believed is open to doubt. Yutar was motivated by deep personal insecurity and an ambition to become South Africa’s first Jewish attorney-general. He ingratiated himself with the whites-only, Jew-baiting, black-hating National Party government in an attempt to show that not all Jews were revolutionaries - as many of his contemporaries undoubtedly were.

At the Rivonia Trial, it was clear that Yutar initially wanted to send Mandela, leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the guerrilla wing of the African National Congress, and his co-accused to the gallows. However, Yutar later claimed he had saved Mandela’s life by charging him ultimately with sabotage rather than high treason. He said his gut instinct told him that Judge Quartus de Wet would not hang Mandela for sabotage, only for treason.

However, the record of the trial shows that Yutar settled for sabotage only because he lacked the evidence to support a treason charge. He argued that Mandela and the other accused, including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and Rusty Bernstein, who died earlier this month in Oxford, had committed murder and treason, not just sabotage.

During his relentless prosecution, Yutar argued that Mandela and his comrades were liars when they claimed to represent the dreams of blacks for freedom and equality.

"The deceit of the accused is amazing," said Yutar as he led evidence in Pretoria’s Place of Justice. "They took it on themselves to tell the world that the Africans in South Africa are suppressed, oppressed and depressed.

"It is a great pity the Bantu (blacks) in the country, who are peaceful, law-abiding, faithful and loyal, should have been duped by false promises."

Percy Yutar was born in the Cape Town suburb of Woodstock of parents who had come to South Africa from the ghettos of Lithuania, like the majority of the country’s strong Jewish community. Percy was one of eight children and money was scarce.

As a young man, he had to work in his father’s butcher shop. Even though the Yutars were a religious family, his father violated Jewish law and opened on Saturday mornings to service the weekend trade. One Saturday, Percy was jamming raw beef into a mincing machine when his left hand slipped and his fingers were plunged into the blades, mangling his fingers beyond repair. The inflamed stumps at the end of his hand were a reminder to Yutar throughout his life that it was a price he had inflicted upon himself for violating the Sabbath.

He became the first student in South Africa to be awarded a doctorate in law, from the University of Cape Town. Still, even with this outstanding qualification, Jews such as Yutar were not welcome in the cosy, inbred offices of the then British-dominated South African civil service.

He was given demeaning jobs as a lawyer in Johannesburg. But after five humiliating years he was appointed a junior law clerk in Pretoria’s Palace of justice.

The anti-Semitism among his Afrikaner colleagues was intense. Yutar would return to his flat at nights and cry himself to sleep.

Finally, in 1940, he was appointed a junior state prosecutor. "Now neither my father nor those Jew-hating bastards in Pretoria could tell me what to do," he once recalled.

No-one worked harder or enjoyed his power more than junior prosecutor Yutar. Eventually he became Deputy Attorney General for the Transvaal. Lord Birkenhead, the 19th-century doyen of the British legal establishment, was his hero.

Yutar had few political views and was indifferent to apartheid. Nevertheless, he sang to the tune of the ruthless Special Branch and became one of its favourite prosecutors. Security policemen such as the notoriously brutal Lieutenant TJ Swanepoel would sit behind Yutar and enjoy the show while Yutar demolished defence witnesses.

However, the pliant Yutar rarely compromised his religion. He always proudly wore a signet ring in the shape of the Star of David and was president of South Africa’s largest Orthodox synagogue.

After the collapse of apartheid, Yutar worked fruitlessly to rehabilitate his image in the new South Africa. Mandela’s generous lunch invitation helped a little, but it was a source of embarrassment to Yutar until near the end of his days that his role in prosecuting Mandela mercilessly was a source of discomfort to Cecilia, his wife of more than 50 years, and to their only child, David. Both Cecilia and David survive him.

In the end, the sad fact is that while the Rivonia Trial had been the jewel in the crown of Yutar’s successful career in the era of white rule, in the post-apartheid era it turned into a curse that he was never able to shake off.