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A Father’s Legacy: Arthur Chaskalson Defended Mandela. Percy Yutar Put Him In Jail.

And now their sons live in the shadow of the great South African leader, who died one year ago today

Daniella Cheslow
December 05, 2014
President Nelson Mandela talks with Percy Yutar, the prosecutor in the Rivonia treason trial in which Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment.(Louise Gubb/Corbis Saba)
President Nelson Mandela talks with Percy Yutar, the prosecutor in the Rivonia treason trial in which Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment.(Louise Gubb/Corbis Saba)

I met David Yutar on a chilly morning in June, which is winter in South Africa. He welcomed me into his modest Cape Town apartment facing Table Mountain in the Tamboerskloof neighborhood. We drank hot tea; a cold draft darted around our legs. David, 59, lives there alone, with a beaded South African Airways model airplane perched on top of a floor-to-ceiling white bookcase.

David Yutar was 8 when the Rivonia Trial, which ended with a life sentence for Nelson Mandela, began in 1963. His father, Percy, the prosecutor in the trial and a pillar of the South African Jewish community, was 52 at the time. Born in South Africa to immigrants from Lithuania, Percy Yutar mangled his left hand at the age of 13 in an accident in his father’s butcher shop. The loss of his fingers transformed him into an ambitious student, getting a bachelor’s and master’s in law from the University of Cape Town. Once he graduated, despite his two degrees, he languished as a debt tracer at the Department of Justice—a post he felt reflected anti-Semitism. Finally, after five years he was promoted to legal prosecutor.

By the time Mandela was captured, Yutar was deputy attorney general of the Transvaal, the largest state in South Africa. He was determined to become South Africa’s first Jewish attorney general—both for himself, and because he saw himself as a trailblazer for the wider Jewish community. David Yutar remembers his father praying daily. He never took off his signet ring with a Jewish star stamped on it.

Besides opening doors for other Jewish aspiring public servants, Yutar thought prosecuting Mandela could show the Afrikaner government that, unlike Mandela’s Jewish co-defendants, there were “good Jews” who would support the regime—an important task given the Nazi sympathies of the early Afrikaner government.

“My father encountered anti-Semitism, became ambitious, and wanted to become the first Jewish attorney general,” David Yutar said. “And the National Party offered him the chance to do that with this trial. That suited him. And it suited the National Party because they could refute allegations they were anti-Semitic. They could say they just appointed a Jewish prosecutor to handle a high-profile case.”


Jerome and Jacky Chaskalson at their wedding, pictured with Nelson Mandela. (Courtesy of Jerome Chaskalson)

In Three Anchor Bay, a neighborhood by the Cape Town seafront, Jerome Chaskalson, 47, poured me a glass of whisky, which we sipped as the fire crackled in the living room of the house he shares with his wife, Jacky, and their two children. Unlike Yutar, Chaskalson was not yet born during the Rivonia Trial. His older brother Matthew, 51, was only an infant. Their father, Arthur Chaskalson, defended Mandela and the three Jewish anti-apartheid activists who faced charges with him.

Jerome Chaskalson said his father came from a well-off Jewish family in Johannesburg and enjoyed a fairly privileged childhood but began to think about the injustices of apartheid when he studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. In contrast to Percy Yutar, who hid his maimed hand under a hat, Chaskalson paired his studies with college soccer. The elder Chaskalson at first worked mostly as a commercial lawyer with some human rights work on the side—but gradually the percentages flipped until nearly all of Chaskalson’s cases involved human rights.

“In South Africa at the time, in a weird way there was an opportunity to stand up and say ‘this is what I believe is right,’ ” Jerome Chaskalson said. “And bear in mind, while there were many people who didn’t follow that path, there was 80 percent of the population who felt what they were living through wasn’t right.”


The Rivonia Trial was named for the suburb of Johannesburg where Mandela and other members of the African National Congress had created a secret base on the Liliesleaf Farm, where they plotted a violent overthrow of the regime.

Most of the defendants were arrested on July 11, 1963; Mandela had been brought into custody a year earlier for leaving the country without a passport. The trial began in November 1963 and continued until June the following year. All together, 10 men faced 221 counts of sabotage.

In the prosecutor’s seat was Percy Yutar, a short man with thick glasses. Watching trial footage gives the impression of a man struggling to shout his way into prominence. In his closing statement, Yutar said, “The deceit of the accused is amazing. Although they represented scarcely more than 1 percent of the African population, they took it upon themselves to tell the world that the Africans in South Africa are suppressed, oppressed, and depressed.”

David Yutar in his Cape Town apartment. (Daniella Cheslow)

David Yutar said his father genuinely believed Mandela and his codefendants would destroy the country. At the time, he said, “The Communist Party was banned, as was the African National Congress, and they were feared by most whites. Most whites talked about swart gevaar, the black danger. My father bought into these fears.”

As an 8-year-old, David Yutar understood little of his father’s motivations—but he could sense the trial’s importance. Yutar said his father was a warm and caring man, but he was devoted to his work and spent long hours toiling on cases. His absence was even more apparent because his wife Cecilia, a pianist and flautist, was often was busy with students. Yutar, growing up alone, sought company in the police who guarded the home during the trial.

“These cops used to come in the evening and sit on the veranda outside and would often play Monopoly with me,” David Yutar said. “And they would do tricks with their dogs, like hula hoops.”

In contrast to Yutar’s high-pitched shouting, Arthur Chaskalson’s closing statement was a measured and polite defense of Umkhonto we Sizwe—Spear of the Nation—the militant arm of the ANC founded by Mandela: “The evidence is that Umkhonto’s policy was only to commit acts of sabotage against government and public property, which it labeled symbols of apartheid,” Chaskalson said. “The evidence further shows … that the clear policy of Umkhonto was sabotage without loss of life.”

Though Jerome and Matthew were too young to experience the Rivonia Trial, the Chaskalson home was a frequent meeting place for human rights lawyers both before and after the trial. Chaskalson’s wife Lorraine was also an anti-apartheid sympathizer and an avid gardener; the house was ringed with trees she planted to celebrate special occasions.

“At the end of trials, there would be a party and a lamb grilled on a spitfire run by George Bizos,” Jerome Chaskalson said, referring to his father’s fellow Rivonia defense attorney. “And I mean that loosely. [Bizos] would have the recipe and hold a glass of wine and others would turn the lamb on the spit.”

Matthew Chaskalson said what set his father apart from other liberal Jewish South Africans is his sense of common cause with black activists. “I was brought up to identify in some way with people who the state had labeled as terrorists and evil,” he said. “My friends were in households where no real respect for the government was inculcated, but they certainly weren’t given any suggestion from their parents that opposition to the government beyond [liberal Jewish legislator] Helen Suzman and the Progressive Party existed.”

In contrast to Percy Yutar’s strict work ethic, Arthur Chaskalson took pains to remain a family man in times of crisis. “There were times he wouldn’t take cases on a Wednesday because Wednesday was school sport and he would watch,” Jerome Chaskalson said. “He was a complete workaholic but he made time for family. He would make time to give his kids two or three hours and then do more work after hours.”


The Rivonia Trial ended in June 1964. Nelson Mandela and seven of his codefendants—including the Jewish Denis Goldberg—were given life sentences. The Jewish community seemed to bear-hug Yutar for his achievement. He was elected to chair the United Hebrew Congregation, a collection of Johannesburg Orthodox synagogues. As Yutar had hoped, the Rivonia Trial secured him a spot as the attorney general of the Orange Free State, and the Jewish community was quick to applaud his ascent. Maurice Porter, chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, wished him “the warmest wishes of the Jewish community for a successful tenure.”

David Yutar said in the years of his father’s prominence, he was seen as a rock for Jewish South Africans. “They used to queue up on Sundays,” he said. “You would be astounded at the things they would come to him for. I remember a friend of his coming to him at the middle of the night because her husband had beat her. What could my father do? She wanted legal help. He was very influential, he used his power, and his influence, and people of course took advantage.”

Chaskalson, by contrast, threw himself into human rights work after the Rivonia Trial. In 1978 he founded the Legal Resource Center, designed to train a new generation of black lawyers and to take on precedent-setting cases against the state. Jerome Chaskalson said that the biggest price his family paid for his father’s work was a slight drop in standard of living, and most likely their home was wire-tapped. However, he said, his father evaded the imprisonment or harassment his colleagues faced because he had an obsessive regard for the law, even carefully itemizing all his customs declarations at the airport. The Afrikaners who let him work, unmolested, might have done so out of “a grudging respect.”

Despite Chaskalson’s Jewish roots, he created a largely secular home. Jerome and Matthew attended Jewish day school and had bar mitzvahs, but they said it was largely due to their friends doing the same thing. Other than that, the Chaskalsons had little to do with the organized Jewish community—in part because the older Chaskalson was disappointed with its attitudes.

“The Jewish community essentially kept their heads down and didn’t want to rock the boat,” Jerome Chaskalson said. “This would have been—we’re talking the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, only 40 years after the Holocaust, and the feeling was ‘they aren’t after us, so that’s fine.’ And I think in a way he felt they should have known better. And that given our history, you need to stand up for what is right not only when it is to your obvious benefit.”


By the 1970s and ’80s, David Yutar and Matthew and Jerome Chaskalson were all studying law at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and began reading about their fathers in their textbooks. Jerome Chaskalon said it was astonishing. “The people hanging out at our house on and off were mostly lawyers, senior, very involved,” he said. “So at later stages when I was at university and seeing who was in the statements, they were like my uncles.”

David Yutar also studied law—at his father’s urging. He said he would have rather studied architecture or music. As he slogged through his undergraduate courses, he made friends with liberal and far-left students. His teachers were actively involved against apartheid—and his father’s role in the Rivonia Trial was a scarlet letter. “It was awkward for me, there was tremendous embarrassment,” he said. And even though he had good friends at the University Wits, Yutar said that “beneath the surface I’m sure lots of people held it against me.”

The weight David Yutar felt continued after graduation. He became a lawyer at the Johannesburg Bar, otherwise known as the Johannesburg Society of Advocates, where many lawyers worked out of a central Bar building. Yutar said when he joined the Bar, his father had retired from public office and had become a private lawyer—and already had his own seat. “To this day people come up to me and say, ‘Percy … oh, David.’ When I was doing law many people couldn’t separate Percy and me.”

The legal work that had driven Percy Yutar was intolerable for his son. David told me he struggled to enjoy arguing as his father did. After five years, he quit the Bar and took a job as a journalist. For one story, he grew his beard for a week and begged on the streets of Cape Town. For another story, he accompanied garbage collectors. Much to David’s relief, his father took an interest in his new career—a career focused on covering the very people Percy Yutar had worked to disenfranchise.

By contrast, Chaskalson’s children found easier paths from law school to rewarding careers. Jerome Chaskalson graduated high school in 1985; by the time he went to university, he felt the writing was on the wall for the racist regime. He worked, as his father did, for a commercial law firm and felt the same pull toward human rights law. After working on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Jerome is today a consultant to government projects. His brother Matthew is a lawyer collecting evidence for the Marikana Commission, investigating the police killing of 34 striking platinum miners in 2012, one of the worst cases of state violence since the fall of apartheid.


Nelson Mandela was released from jail on Feb. 11, 1990. Jerome Chaskalson was in Johannesburg and made his way to the Hillbrow neighborhood, a formerly wealthy white neighborhood that had gradually become integrated between black and white residents.

“The reason we went to Hillbrow was there would be a lot of black people on the streets, and you could share this joy along racial lines,” Chaskalson told me. “There was a sense of euphoria. I know there were people who were scared, who were buying tins of food, who were about to leave the country or wanting to, but certainly the people I was hanging out with were happy about it.”

While Chaskalson was dancing in the streets, Yutar was in the newsroom, regarding Mandela’s release from a distance. “We were heading for revolution, so in that sense I was very excited. But I was also fearful, because I had no idea what life would be like with an unbanned ANC and Communist Party.”

Mandela’s release abruptly rearranged the old balance of power in South Africa, and the shift was acutely felt for both the Yutars and the Chaskalsons. In 1994 Mandela appointed Arthur Chaskalson the first president of South Africa’s constitutional court, charged with drafting a new constitution for the nation.

Percy Yutar, on the other hand, was a demon who had been vanquished. In 1995, Mandela invited the elder Yutar to a kosher lunch. A picture of the two shows Mandela towering over the former prosecutor. “My father, you saw he was ill at ease and struggling to articulate views, he didn’t come across well,” David Yutar recalled. “He was so nervous to be together with Mandela in this new situation where Mandela had the ascendancy and my father didn’t. “

When Jerome got engaged, he said he and his wife extended an invitation to Mandela, who stood close to the new couple under the chuppah. Following Jewish custom, Jerome’s bride Jacky circled him seven times. “She kind of thought, ‘I wonder what’s happening to my veil,’ ” Chaskalson said. “And she turned around to see Mandela sitting behind her, gently straightening this long train.”

Mandela also visited David Yutar’s newsroom—but Yutar didn’t know how to make contact. “The editor introduced him to all the reporters, including me,” Yutar said. “He said, ‘this is Percy’s son.’ We didn’t have any personal conversation. … I was in two minds. I wanted to meet him for a while, and then I got to a stage where I thought it would serve no purpose.”

David Yutar said that when Mandela was freed, the Jewish community that had once held his father close began to disown him. “The naturally easy scapegoat was my father,” David Yutar said. “So they maligned him and rejected him as a bad Jew.” The treatment was a shot across the bow for Percy Yutar, whose Jewish identity was always a driving engine of his career. Compounding Yutar’s distress over his degraded position among his fellow Jews was his lack of financial planning. The bank repossessed his home. David Yutar said he could see trouble ahead and tried in vain to help his father budget his money. At a particularly desperate junction, David Yutar called some of his father’s old friends to ask for financial help—and found many of them had cut off contact.

Matthew Chaskalson said Percy Yutar was only one of many South African Jews who either supported apartheid or discouraged any criticism of it—and people like his father were distanced. Today, Matthew said, “The attempt by mainstream South African Jews to appropriate those Jewish activists as evidence that Jewish South Africa was on the right side in the 1960s and 1970s is enraging.”

Ironically, even as the Jewish community branded Yutar as an emblem of apartheid—or perhaps because of it—Yutar’s vitriol faded in his later years. He shared his Johannesburg Bar legal offices with Ismail Mahomed, a lawyer of Indian descent and a personal friend of Mandela who would go on to become chief justice. And he maintained that he saved Mandela from the gallows by charging him with sabotage, not treason.


Percy Yutar died in 2002 at age 90 following a stroke and heart attack. He had lived to see the implosion of the apartheid edifice he helped enshrine. Despite the erosion of his position, Percy Yutar’s funeral was well-attended, David Yutar said. Yet no matter what Percy Yutar achieved in the rest of his career, his obituaries all summarized him as the prosecutor who sent Mandela to life in prison. One writer observed in The Scotsman that Yutar had been disturbed by the fact that his role in the Rivonia Trial was a source of shame for his wife and son. “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.”

Arthur Chaskalson passed away 10 years later from an acute case of leukemia. He was 81. He was buried in state, and the love for him was strong enough to demand three rounds of pallbearers. It was not only admiration that drew South Africans to his burial: By 2012, the shortcomings of the New South Africa were clear. Corruption charges dogged President Jacob Zuma. Deep budget holes failed to bring proper education, housing, or infrastructure to the masses of newly enfranchised black citizens. Burying Chaskalson was a way to borrow some of his idealistic light. Matthew Chaskalson said his father maintained his integrity even as he died. “He specifically said he didn’t want to be buried by Orthodox Jewish South Africans,” Matthew said. The funeral rites were performed by a Reform rabbi.

Arthur Chaskalson left behind a wife, two children, and five grandchildren, and his descendants are all steeped in the tradition of deep involvement in South Africa’s life.

Jerome Chaskalson said his life has been so full and rewarding that he has had little time to consider how it would have been different had he been born a Yutar. When asked, he said, ”I would think there but for the grace of God go I. You don’t choose your parents.”

David Yutar has spent much time ruminating the same question. “I think how different it would have been: my life, my mom’s, and his of course,” Yutar said of his father. “He wasn’t stupid. He was a competent, bright advocate, and he would have done very well as a defense advocate. I’m sorry that didn’t happen.” David Yutar, the last of his father’s legacy, has no children, and he thinks daily about leaving the country. When I met him, he was wearing a yellow ribbon to remember a colleague murdered in his own home by burglars, and he was himself attacked last year. “I would have liked to have left 20 years ago,” he said. “We got rid of one bad government and got another.”

What to David Yutar are unfulfilled promises are to the Chaskalsons a call of duty. Jerome told me he never considered following friends abroad. “There is nowhere else in the world I could do as much as I do here,” he said. “I know this country, I understand how it works, and I think if we get enough good people together we can do a lot of good.”


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Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.