Percy Yutar (29 July 1911 – 13 July 2002) was the first Jewish attorney-general in South Africa. He was one of eight children in a family of Lithuanian immigrants (his father's original name was "Yuter"). He secured Nelson Mandela's conviction and sentence of life imprisonment.
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.
Yutar attended the University of Cape Town on a scholarship, and in 1937 received his doctorate in law. But despite his education, given the prevalence of antisemitism in South Africa at the time, he had to work, for five years, in a lowly legal position at the post office. In 1940, he was appointed a junior state prosecutor and eventually become Deputy Attorney General, first in the Orange Free State, and later in the Transvaal.
The Rivonia trial and support for apartheid
Yutar was the prosecutor in the 1963 Rivonia Trial against Nelson Mandela and 9 others; he argued that the full weight of the law should be brought to bear on the defendants, which many considered a call for the death penalty. However Justice Quartus de Wet refused to impose it, due to the labeling of the crime as sabotage and not high treason. During the trial Yutar brutally cross-examined some of the defendants. Yutar even carried out a hostile cross-examination of Alan Paton who had appeared in mitigation of sentence. Mandela and 7 others were sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage; two were acquitted. Yutar accused the defendants of telling lies to the world that Africans in South Africa were oppressed. In truth, he said, Africans were peaceful, law-abiding and loyal to the regime.
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. Yutar was regarded as a true patriot by the then minister of justice, John Vorster, and lauded as a scourge of the liberation movements, particularly the African National Congress, which he denounced as a communist-dominated terrorist organisation that had misled the black masses. He worked closely with the security police, who held him in high regard. Benjamin Pogrund, former deputy-editor of The Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg, confirmed that Yutar "was loved by the security police. They told me they loved him because he did their bidding. What they wanted, he did, including all his histrionics in court."
Years later, after the end of apartheid, Yutar stated that he believed that he had in fact saved the lives of the Rivonia defendants, by charging them with sabotage instead of treason. In his last recorded interview he stated: "If I had merely even asked for the death penalty, the judge would have granted. . . . They would have been named martyrs and that would have led to a hellish revolution, and a bloody civil war. And I have not the slightest doubt that I acted correctly, and saved this country." But George Bizos, one of the defence lawyers at the trial, called this a lie.
Yutar was a controversial figure whose "vengeful and forbidding image as a relentless opponent of the anti-apartheid struggle contrasted with his private persona as a gentle and devoted husband and father, who loved classical music".
Involvement in the Jewish community
- "JewishGen Lithuania Database". Jewishgen.org. 2009-07-29. Retrieved 2012-03-06.
- "Percy Yutar, Obituary". The Scotsman (Edinburgh). 2002-07-23. Retrieved 2014-01-02.
- Rathbone, Emma (Fall 2013). "Mandela's Prosecutor". Virginia Quarterly Review 89 (4): 158–168. Retrieved 2014-01-02.
- Shaw, Gerald (19 July 2002). "Percy Yutar, Obituary". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
- Easterman, Daniel (2013-12-25). "Mandela and me: journalist's insights into the anti-apartheid struggle". The Jewish Chronicle (London). Retrieved 2014-01-02.