We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Remembering Lord Joel Joffe



The world will miss the lawyer and philantrophist who defended Mandela and was chair of Oxfam, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

A few weeks ago, my husband Stan and I visited a man we admire immensely, Lord Joel Joffe - human rights lawyer, businessman, philantrophist and peer.

It was a brief visit and we promised Joel we’d return, hoping desperately we could meet him one more time, before the unrelenting cancer took him. But it was not to be. Joel passed away peacefully on 18 June with his family around him. He had been passionate about the right to die in dignity. And it was how he went. He refused all the treatments money could buy, and he definitely could afford anything the medical world could offer. But he didn’t want his life prolonged in an undignified, pointless sort of way. It was typical of Joel that he died the way he lived. He always practised what he preached

I’ve never heard anyone refer to him as ‘My Lord’ or the Baron. He would laugh if you did. When you met Joel it was his simplicity, modesty and humility that struck you. A completely unassuming, gentle man who listened carefully and spoke briefly. Quintessentially quiet and wise, with a smile that lit up his face.

His friends had countless stories about him. It was completely Joel – that though he could have had a chauffeur driven car from the House of Lords to his residence in Swindon, he invariably used public transport. Definitely not your typical millionaire!

In the House of Lords, Joel Joffe presented the assisted dying bill and campaigned vigorously for it. The bill was not passed, but he managed to bring the issue centre stage. ‘It's the most useful thing I’ve done there’ he said, as we spoke in his 16th-century manor house in Wiltshire, his beloved Liddington Manor. He retired from the House of Lords last year at the age of 85.

We first met Joel in 2000 when he was Chair of Oxfam. But before that, in 1994, we visited Allied Dunbar, a life assurance company Joel had founded, to look at its charitable giving – long before corporate social responsibilty became a buzzword. Joel's stance on charitable giving is legendary.

Raising the issue in Parliament in 2004, Joel said: ‘It is astonishing that although the richest 1 per cent of the population now own around one quarter of the total marketable wealth in this country while the poorest 50 per cent own only 5 per cent between them, it is the poorer donors who are giving a much higher proportion of their income to charity.

‘While wealthy people on average donate only 0.7 per cent of their household expenditure to charity, the poorest donors are giving more than four times that (3 per cent). Do we want a society where the wealthy focus solely upon self-gratification buying yachts, personal jets and other play things, or a caring society where everyone contributes as generously as they can to make a better society for all?’

Later I discovered that Joel, was one of the few lawyers who chose to represent Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other ANC leaders in the fight against apartheid. The details are in a moving book, The State vs. Nelson Mandela: The Trial That Changed South Africa. It’s a legal battle which probably saved Mandela from the death sentence and changed the course of history for South Africa.

Joel, as a white South African, was exiled to Britain in 1965 , after being turned away from Australian shores as an undesirable. His passport had been confiscated. Lord Dick Taverne, then an MP, arrived at the airport to rescue him. Joel’s South African law degree made it difficult for him to join the legal profession in Britain. So he changed careers, embarking on a new journey – ethical business.

Joel generously supported our work in India and was a constant source of encouragement and inspiration. A critical friend. At 70, Joel invited my husband Stan , to join a discussion on how to wind up his Trust and distribute his considerable wealth while he was of sound mind. At 85, last week, when we met him, he was still clear-headed and sharp. The smile still lit up his face.

I feel a lump in my throat as I recall that he and his warm, lovely artist wife Vanetta, enjoyed a meal in my home after the millenium celebrations. Joel especially loved the traditional fish served on banana leaves. When we visited them, Vanetta cooked us a simple delicious meal, herself. In India we’d say, ‘with her own two hands!’

Joel placed plates and cutlery and helped bring the food to the table. Good Lord! I thought. Pun intended. No airs and graces at all.

His funeral is a quiet, private one, respecting his wishes, with only his immediate family around. He sent a message thanking family and friends for their support and good wishes during his brief illness. I was glad we had the opportunity to meet him and thank him for his friendship and support. As we left his beautiful home last week, I was on the verge of tears. The thought came to my mind, ‘The world would be a much better place, so much better, if we had a lot more people like Joel in it.’ I didn't say it of course.

‘I've had a good life. I have no regrets,’ he said. And I gave thanks that we’d known him and had so many conversations, listened to so much wisdom from this truly wonderful man.

Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop