Percy Yutar

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Percy Yutar (29 July 1911 – 13 July 2002) was South Africa's first Jewish attorney-general. He was one of eight children in a family of Lithuanian immigrants (his father's original name was "Yuter").[1] He prosecuted Nelson Mandela resulting in multiple convictions and sentence of life imprisonment.

Early life[edit]

Percy Yutar was born in the Cape Town suburb of Woodstock to parents who had emigrated to South Africa from the ghettos of Lithuania, like the majority of the country's once large Jewish community. Percy was one of eight children and money was tight. As a young man, he worked in his father’s butcher's shop.[2]

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.[2] 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.[3]

The Rivonia trial and support for apartheid[edit]

Yutar was the prosecutor in the 1963 Rivonia Trial against Nelson Mandela and 9 others. Yutar charged the defendants with sabotage and conspiracy, instead of the more serious crime of treason. Mandela and 7 co-defendants were convicted, while two were acquitted. During sentencing, Yutar argued that the full weight of the law should be brought to bear on the defendants, but did not specify whether he believed the defendants should be executed or sentenced to prison. Since the death penalty was rarely used for sabotage and conspiracy, Justice Quartus de Wet sentenced the defendants to life in prison. Anti-apartheid activists condemned the guilty verdict, but were relieved that Mandela had not been charged with treason and would not be executed. [4]

During the trial Yutar brutally cross-examined some of the defendants.[2] Yutar even carried out a hostile cross-examination of Alan Paton who had appeared in mitigation of sentence.[3] 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.[5]

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.[2] 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.[5] 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."[6] Yutar was said to be indifferent towards Apartheid.[2]

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.[3]

Decades later, on 23 November 1995, a forgiving Mandela invited Yutar to a Kosher lunch, and allegedly said that [Yutar] was simply doing his duty as state prosecutor.[5]

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".[5]

Involvement in the Jewish community[edit]

For about 11 years Yutar was chairman of the United Hebrew Congregation, which was a collection of Orthodox synagogues in Johannesburg.[6]

In popular culture[edit]

In the 2017 film An Act of Defiance, Nelson Mandela's defence team initially assume Yutar's Jewish background would help the plight of their defendants. In a meeting with Mandela's lawyer, Bram Fischer, Yutar complains that Mandela's Jewish co-defendants, whom he calls "Jewish terrorists" have placed the Jewish community at risk of violence from White South Africans.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "JewishGen Lithuania Database". 2009-07-29. Retrieved 2012-03-06.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Percy Yutar, Obituary". The Scotsman. Edinburgh. 2002-07-23. Retrieved 2014-01-02.
  3. ^ a b c Rathbone, Emma (Fall 2013). "Mandela's Prosecutor". Virginia Quarterly Review. 89 (4): 158–168. Retrieved 2014-01-02.
  4. ^ "South Africa's Supreme Court Abolishes Death Penalty". New York: The New York Times. 7 June 1995. Retrieved 1 May 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d Shaw, Gerald (19 July 2002). "Percy Yutar, Obituary". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  6. ^ a b Easterman, Daniel (2013-12-25). "Mandela and me: journalist's insights into the anti-apartheid struggle". The Jewish Chronicle. London. Retrieved 2014-01-02.

Further reading[edit]

  • Joffe, Joel (2007). The State vs Nelson Mandela - The Trial that Changed South Africa. Oneworld Publications. ISBN 978-1-85168-638-4.