A Lawyer’s Odyssey: Apartheid, Mandela and Beyond By Henry Brown (Otterley Press, Pietermaritzburg 2020)
Review By Mohamed M Keshavjee, Barrister at Law, LLM, PhD (Lond)
Unsung Heroes of South Africa
Millions of words have been written about the ravages of apartheid, that white supremacist ideology that became state policy in 1948 and dominated the global discourse about South Africa, and lasted almost until the end of the century when apartheid was finally dismantled having imploded under the excesses of its own absurdities. This was not before wreaking havoc on the lives of millions of people — many of whose stories are only now beginning to surface. Henry Brown’s highly readable memoir, A Lawyer’s Odyssey: Apartheid, Mandela and Beyond is one such book that takes us through the life of a lawyer who worked at the ground level as a frontline worker who confronted the pathogen of apartheid in its most virulent form in the earliest days of the malaise. Brown’s book will resonate with every South African who experienced this horrendous blot on the country’s moral conscience in the 20th century.
The book has an unusual foreword by Albie Sachs, the well-known South African Constitutional lawyer, judge, and human rights activist who himself was a victim of apartheid’s secret police. The police were responsible for a 1988 bombing incident in Mozambique which resulted in Sachs losing a limb and the sight in one eye. The foreword is intriguing. It is written in the first person with Sachs thanking Brown for certain things that Brown did for him and of which he only became aware some 57 years later. Sachs writes, “looking back now, I honour you even more for doing your job as a lawyer with the professionalism, sympathy and courage that all lawyers should have at all times, but sadly many lawyers do not. My debt of gratitude has accumulated with 57 years of interest.”
Thanking Brown for writing this book, “totally devoid of forensic vainglory,” Sachs refers to the many people Brown represented, including Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela, the Pan Africanist Congress leader, Robert Sobukwe, a couple charged for breach of the Immorality Act, and more particularly, the inquest into the 1969 death in police custody of Imam Abdullah Haron, who had 26 bruises on his body but whose demise was termed by the South African Police as an “accidental death” caused by the imam falling down a flight of stairs! Eight years later, the Biko case, which had similar hallmarks, made world headlines.
In all these cases, as Sachs points out, the reader discovers not only the agony of the accused, “but also your [Henry Brown’s] distress at being compelled to engage in the excruciating processes of racial evaluation.” The personal nature of the foreword sets the tone of what to expect in the rest of the book.
In his introduction to the book, Brown speaks of individuals who would play an important role in the freedom struggle in South Africa starting with the Cape Town firm of Frank, Bernadt and Joffe, referred to in the book as FB&J, and its senior partner Himan (Himie) Bernadt, whom Brown describes as “a man of great principle, integrity and wisdom”. Immediately, I was able to make a connection with the book as I had the pleasure of meeting both Himie and his equally committed wife Jean, years later, through their daughter Marian Roberts, a well-known trainer in family mediation with whom I worked in London.
Brown then speaks of Muizenberg his birthplace — a beautiful seaside suburb of Cape Town some 15 miles away from the city centre — mentioning its connections with, among others, Cecil Rhodes, Rudyard Kipling, and Agatha Christie. Here in this seaside town Brown spent some of the happiest years of his life within the comfort of the small Jewish community to which he belonged, many of whom migrated to South Africa to escape the pogroms in the Russian empire in the late 19th century.
In his narrative, Brown then takes us to a time when apartheid was at its apogee, and highlights the famous Treason Trial that lasted from1956–1961. He mentions his work in helping marginalised people find their feet and teaching African dockworkers to read and write. Brown was concerned very early on in his legal career about how the policy of the South African government was encroaching on people’s basic civil liberties with specific limitation to the non-whites to enter universities — a factor which, once again, finds ready resonance with numerous people who, due to the colour of their skin alone, were denied the right to post-secondary university education. For me, this is particularly resonant, as I had a brother at Witwatersrand University — one of only 6 non-white students in 1957 — who was granted admission to do medicine but who sadly had to abandon his further studies because of the apartheid state’s assault on people’s livelihoods.
The book segues into 1960s and the Sharpeville massacre (69 killed and 180 wounded by the police) which was a major milestone in the political history of apartheid South Africa. As a junior articled clerk in a firm of legal giants, Brown found himself being pulled into political cases where there was no one else in the firm to represent those who had fallen victim to the machinations of a draconian state. As a trainee, Brown found himself in a mixed practice where, in between appearing in court to handle debt collection cases, he was summoned to the prison cells to represent people who had neither the money to afford a lawyer, nor the hope of receiving fair treatment at the hands of the apartheid legal system. Sharpeville and its aftermath exposed Brown to a new world of which he had become an integral part. As he states, “the Kgosana march and trial, the state of Emergency, the detention of our senior partner’s wife [referring to Jean, Himie Bernadt’s wife], the referendum transforming the country into a republic — and for me, a year of immersion into some very challenging court work, even before my career as a court lawyer had started”, ushered him into that exciting world.
Brown’s book then takes us into the immediate post-Sharpeville period when he encounters Neville Rubin a fellow articled clerk, and together they bring an action in court to impugn the legality of a nationwide ban and they win the case! What is interesting is how these two young articled clerks use all their creative ideas and ingenuity to find someone — anyone — to sponsor the legal action leaving no stone unturned to do this. Neville Rubin then goes off to become a political activist and later plays an important role with Brown in the relentless fight against apartheid once they both leave South Africa. This gives rise to a friendship that endures for some 6o years.
Then, in 1960s South Africa, we find Brown as young 22-year-old lawyer newly married to a young social worker, Elsa, the love of his life, as he encounters the full apparatus (and weight) of the apartheid state. He finds himself defending Africans charged with breaches of the infamous pass laws and prisoners charged with breaches of prison regulations. But there are also others — and not exclusively African — who are charged under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 and other security laws. It is during this period and more particularly in 1963, that Brown represents Albie Sachs, who had been detained under the so called 90-Day Detention Act. He describes in detail the Kafkaesque atmosphere of the notorious Cape Town Police Headquarters in Caledon Square as he accompanies Albie’s mother Ray to try to pay a visit to Albie.
A naturally suspicious lawyer, Brown notices an inkwell in the waiting room and like Anthony Quinn in a movie, he purposely drops his pen to the floor, thus giving him an excuse to see what is under the table — only to find that the inkwell is attached to a surveillance contraption hidden under the table.
He manages to see Albie during a later visit to police cells elsewhere, and speaks to him in coded language which the attending policeman is unable to decipher. Then with the intention of making an application for ameliorating Albie’s prison conditions, Brown walks around in Albie’s cell counting his paces so that he can take the cell’s measurements. Working closely with Himie Bernadt, Brown then brings an application against one Captain Rossouw, second in command of the Security Police, with the application ending in favour of the prisoner. On completing his 90-day detention, Albie Sachs was given his belongings only to be rearrested for another 90 days immediately he stepped outside. Brown then regales us with a funny story to show how absurd apartheid had really become.
Albie had been released from detention and was seen running through the city streets in his shorts and rugby jersey, heading for the seafront. On hearing this news, many of Albie’s friends and colleagues decided to go and meet him when he reached the 4th Clifton Beach, only to find that they could not do so because under the Suppression of Communism Act, Albie was precluded from meeting more than one person at a time. What eventually happened was that a group of about 15 to 20 men dressed in suits stood together on a flat piece of rock on the edge of the beach while a man in rugby jersey rolled about in the shallow surf and they stepped down one at a time in turn to stand at the edge of the moving surf to talk to him before returning to the rock. Truly a surreal scene for anyone watching the drama from the high-rise buildings behind!
Following this episode, Brown and his wife Elsa, open their home to Albie by letting him use their child’s nursery as a temporary bedroom. With Albie in the flat, the Security Police became active again, arriving at the door disguised as Post Office workers to repair a telephone fault for which they had not been called. Brown, suspicious as ever, dismantles the phone after they leave only to find that he could not reassemble it again without calling the Post Office.
Albie never forgot this episode and on Brown’s 80th birthday sent him a video message through Brown’s son, whose nursery he had used, recalling the incident with great humour. For Brown, Albie embodied the “ubuntu that touched me and from whom I learned a great deal under apartheid…”. Part of Albie Sachs’s varied life as a political detainee and later as a defence lawyer and a freedom fighter becomes real in Brown’s description of these early days of the struggle to assert human dignity in South Africa. Next Brown takes us through the early 1960s and apartheid’s relentless march to hegemony. While Brown did not take part in the famous Rivonia trial in which Mandela and a small group of freedom fighters were charged and convicted, his chapter “The Early mid-sixties…” provides a good background on how the apartheid state was encroaching on the civil liberties of everyone through ‘pervasive and considerable security powers’.
Brown continued his legal practice which included a range of services, from preparing a will for an old lady who was afraid that if she made a will, she would be inviting her premature death, to gaining an injunction to stop a ship from sailing because it had onboard a man who was trying to abduct his infant child against his wife’s knowledge and approval. During all this time, amidst a common or garden legal practice, Brown takes on cases to defend the rights of political prisoners — mostly on a pro bono basis to stop the apartheid state from encroaching on human freedoms. In some cases, like that of Coleman Gacula, Brown has him freed from prison on a suspended sentence, while in the case of the Cape Town University lecturer, Alan Brooks and the 22-year-old physiotherapist Stephanie Kemp, detained under the 90-day Detention Act, Brown acts as an assistant to Himie Bernadt, who secures lesser sentences for them.
During all this time, Brown tests the South African laws and the legal system which, as Albie Sachs then observes, showed that ‘there is [still] scope for law, even in the midst of tyranny’. While many of the political cases were fought in the Transvaal, Brown finds himself defending political prisoners for their basic rights in the Cape as most of the prisoners from across the country ended up on Robben Island. It was during that era of increasing state encroachment on the lives of ordinary men and women that Brown encounters the South African novelist, Alex la Guma and his wife Blanche, whose case he handles as part of a team headed by Himie Bernadt. Here we see the Security Police trying to extract a statement through coercion from La Guma’s wife Blanche, who, with her husband Alex, was charged with being in possession of a banned newspaper. Their house was raided, and both of them were detained under the notorious 90-day Detention Act. Albie Sachs was briefed to represent Blanche who received a caution – the minimum sentence that a magistrate could impose.
The case attracted a lead article from the influential Cape Times, the leading English-language daily newspaper, exhorting responsible citizens to be wary of their civil liberties and reminding them how the state had become vindictive in prosecuting individuals for trivial offences which had nothing to do with the security of the state. That did not end the case for the couple. In 1965, Alex La Guma was detained again under the 180-Day Detention Act, which a year later led to his leaving South Africa to live in exile, first in the UK and then in Cuba where he became the representative of the ANC. Brown and his wife Elsa’s friendship with the La Gumas continued until Alex’s death in Cuba and even after Blanche’s return to a liberated South Africa in the 1990s.
The book then takes us through the turbulent sixties where as a lawyer with a firm committed to defending people who were victims of human rights abuses, Brown finds himself acting for political prisoners complaining of ill treatment at the hands of the Security Police. This time (in 1964) he encounters the well-known Indian political activist, Billy Nair, whose complaint about police harassment and ill treatment at Robben Island was referred to him by an Indian firm of lawyers, Seedat and Company of Natal. Brown tried to lobby with Progressive Members of Parliament who informed him that an earlier complaint by another political prisoner, Dennis Brutus, had led to a slight change in attitude and treatment.
Brown marvels at the level of cultural insensitivity on the part of the apartheid state whose menial functionaries saw nothing inappropriate in referring to a Black man as a “boy”. More so, when the person the functionary was referring to was none other than the other prominent political prisoner on Robben Island, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, one-time distinguished Professor of African Studies at Witwatersrand University. It was this structural discrimination, so deeply embedded in the psyche of the apartheid state and in the criminal justice system of South Africa, that Brown tried very hard to fight through taking on these applications.
In between the normal wear and tear of a daily general practice, Brown finds himself defending Amy Reitstein a nursery schoolteacher charged with contravening the Suppression of Communism Act. She was subject to a banning order that required her to report to the police headquarters every Monday between 7 am and 6 pm for 5 years. One Monday, Amy Reitstein forgot to report and was charged for non-reporting. Brown made a plea in mitigation on her behalf whereby her sentence was suspended for all the period under the law but for seven days
This case was then followed by Brown defending a 24-year-old Coloured man called Petersen who was charged with sabotage, based on his having allegedly sought to damage the main Post Office in Cape Town by placing an improvised bomb in a telephone booth. Realising that Petersen was suffering from mental illness, Brown tried to show that he was unfit to plead but the Prosecution dug their heels and pressed on with the charge. Through an overseas donor’s help to pay for the defence, Brown was able to engage a Defence Counsel to fight the case.
As it transpired, Petersen was found unfit to plead or stand trial. During this time, Brown’s legal firm was raided by the Special Branch just because the firm had an agency for a building society one of whose customers had used the agency to deposit funds that were suspected to be used for illegal purposes relating to the armed struggle. On one occasion, Brown himself was summoned from court while in the midst of a case because the Security Policemen insisted serving him a document stating that the Defence Aid Fund (D&A) which had been financing the legal defence of many of his clients, had been banned that day and that Brown was required to attend Police Headquarters to provide sworn evidence regarding certain specific aspects of the D&A’s activities.
Brown enlisted the help of Senior Counsel Sam Aaron who advised him that, under the legislation, he was entitled to provide affidavit evidence without the need for a personal appearance. As it transpired, Brown did not have to appear before them. The banning of the D&A meant that that were no more funds for the legal defence of political prisoners.
This is when Brown, once again, encounters his erstwhile colleague, Neville Rubin, now based in the UK, who had worked out “a plan that would cleanse ‘tainted ’money” to be sent to South Africa for the purpose of defending political prisoners”. Brown was unaware of this but only came to know of this subterfuge years later through a book written by Denis Herbstein. Rubin had devised an elaborate plan in the UK with the help of Canon Collins, a leading anti-apartheid supporter, whereby a legal firm in the UK, through a two-tier arrangement, would brief a firm in South Africa to defend a political prisoner. There were sufficient barriers to obfuscate the provenance of the funds which mostly came from The International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) whose lawyer was an ex-South African, Martin Bayer, who was a partner in an English firm called Birkbeck Montague. Reputable UK firms would then brief FB&J who were not to know where the funds had come from.
In 1966, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, one of the chief architects of apartheid, was assassinated, ironically by a white South African in the Parliament in Cape Town. Verwoerd was succeeded as Prime Minister by BJ Vorster, Minister of Justice, Police and Prisons. With an extreme right-wing background, Vorster continued the government’s repressive policy. It was at the end of 1966 that Brown, once again, confronted the apartheid state in the law courts in defending a 35-year-old Alfred Binks who was charged with his partner, Jennifer de Doncker, under the Immorality Act of 1957 which prohibited sexual relations between a White and a non-White for which the statutory punishment was a maximum seven-year prison sentence.
Brown managed to secure an acquittal for the couple but not without being left with several existential questions which have engaged the minds of many South Africans when considering the issue of morality, decency and ethics. Brown asks rhetorically in the book, “What was more immoral? A couple caring for and committed to one another, living together with their two young children and being in love and making love despite having different racial identities, or a law that would separate them from one another and their children and put them in jail [for] up to seven years for having that commitment and for living across the colour line?”
It is against this background that Brown relates a new encounter — his momentous chance meeting with Nelson Mandela which took place through Joel Joffe, a leading South African lawyer who had been part of Mandela’s Defence team at the famous Rivonia Trial some 3 years earlier. Mandela was summoned to appear for disciplinary proceedings in the Robben Island Prison Court and in his own curly neat handwriting writes a letter to FB&J marked “Attention: Mr Brown”. In this letter Mandela asks Brown to represent him on a charge for violating a disciplinary rule and for ‘laziness’.
As it transpired, Brown hastened to Robben Island and conducted the defence, only to find that the case was heavily stacked against the defendant in that the judicial officer was a subordinate of the Prison’s Commanding Officer who had brought the charge against Mandela. On reflecting as to whether an appeal should be lodged, both Brown and Mandela decided against that route given the fact that if a magistrate from outside Robben Island had to come to hear the appeal, such magistrate had higher sentencing powers which included whipping. Mandela’s response was ‘What is six day’s spare diet [in the larger scheme of things]’. Reflecting on Mandela’s philosophical words, Brown all these years later asks the rhetorical question: What turn might history have taken if Mandela had decided to appeal and if he had been whipped? Might he have been bitter and would he have been able to direct the major moral transformation that he undertook later — something totally unparalleled in the modern history of racial conflict?
Mandela, a stickler for the law, then decided in a later charge of breaching prison regulations to impugn the entire justice system which he felt was asymmetrical and patently unjust in the sense that the system excluded people from judicial appointment based on the colour of their skin. But here Brown explained to him, his own inability to do anything as he, Brown, was a de facto officer of the court although it was an apartheid court. Reminiscent of the stance he took at the Rivonia trial and emulating Gandhi whom he admired deeply, Mandela fought the case himself based on this principle. It is not known what the outcome was. Most probably it was further disciplinary action such as deprivation of reading material and further solitary confinement.
From correspondence that came to light nearly fifty years later through the Mandela Foundation, Brown found that Mandela described him as his “Cape Town attorney”. He also learned that Mandela required his legal assistance again in April 1967, but Mandela’s letter to this effect never reached Brown. The disappearance of letters, both incoming and outgoing, was the technique the Security Police used to punish political prisoners, and this is beautifully captured in Ahmed Kathrada’s 1999 book Letters from Robben Island. In some cases, letters came through with sections excised with a razor blade so that prisoners were unable to make sense of what was written – at times even when the written words referred to the death of a loved member of a family.
In 1967, Mandela again contacted Brown, this time for a defence to an action against him for laziness for which Mandela wanted to plead his medical condition which made working in the lime quarry particularly strenuous. Now after 50 years and piecing the developments together from diverse sources hitherto not accessible, what is apparent is that many of Mandela’s letters did not reach Brown. However, through one letter, the lawyer Joel Carlson (d. 2001) asks Brown to defend Winnie Mandela for breaching a banning order, something Winnie was often accused of, given the very intricate and almost impossible conditions placed on freedom of movement and its curtailment as imposed in the orders. Brown describes Winnie’s ordeal and, while recognizing some of her later shortcomings, shows deep empathy by highlighting how dehumanising and traumatic the system was and how the state treated Winnie in a most despicable and vindictive manner.
During these years, Brown was asked by Mandela to assist him in resisting an application to have him struck off the roll of attorneys, which involved some research that helped Mandela to challenge the application, which was eventually dropped. He was also asked by Mandela to liaise with Joel Carlson to arrange various of Mandela’s family matters and more particularly the care of his minor children. This was the last occasion Brown had of doing Mandela’s work which then devolved on a colleague at FB&J when Brown left for the UK in mid-1971.
Brown’s book next speaks about the Eastern Cape cases before it moves on to the famous Abdullah Haron case which was a cause célèbre in South Africa. The Eastern Cape cases reflect a gross miscarriage of justice where a person called Douglas Tele was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act and given sentences for offences which should have been ordered to run concurrently but were not. Through using the appeal procedure, Brown managed to get part of the sentences suspended, thus reducing the prison term to be served. This led to a floodgate of applications from prisoners on Robben Island with Brown finding himself inundated with work and facing severe mental strain. He was faced with a serious moral conundrum because, although overwhelmed, if he failed to act on their behalf, they would have no recourse to justice. According to one estimate some 158 men were saved from 258 years in gaol because of these interventions.
However, on their release these prisoners were banished to resettlement camps and villages. Brown found himself visiting them in an Eastern Cape township to discuss their plight, but he could only do so accompanied by the Security Police. Once again, he sees the appalling living condition faced by the Blacks in the country who were relegated to the most menial jobs — some including digging graves to bury children who were dying of malnutrition. The apartheid state was bent on destroying the very fibre of African life and there seemed no hope whatsoever on the horizon. It was at this time that Brown became involved with the imam Haron inquest — another horrendous blotch on the conscience and the escutcheon of the apartheid state.
Towards the end of 1969, Brown found himself involved in the inquest on the death of imam Abdullah Haron, a Muslim cleric who was an anti-apartheid activist detained under the 180-Day Act. Haron had been tortured to death, but his death was described as accidental and attributed to his falling down a flight of stairs. The Security Police tried their best to obstruct justice by avoiding a post-mortem but Brown was able to ensure that the family had its own pathologist at the post-mortem which the Police assiduously tried to thwart through misinformation and duplicity. Brown’s diligent action ensured that the true cause of death was recorded through the findings of one Dr Anstey, the family’s pathologist. This ensured that an inquest would take place, which it did some six months later.
Through FB&J, Brown, working alongside Himie Bernadt, retained Wilfred Cooper SC a leading lawyer to attend the inquest on behalf of the widow and the family. Forensic witnesses were presented at the inquest, but the findings were of “accidental death”. This gave rise to an editorial comment in the Cape Times warning that “The Government will be failing in its duty if it does not appoint an authoritative Judicial Commission to determine beyond any doubt how Haron came to die [and] why it took nearly five months to hold the inquest…”
In his book Brown mentions that, to his knowledge, no further inquiry was ever held to determine how Haron or any of the other detainees met their death at the hands of the Security Police. Brown brought a civil action on behalf of Haron’s widow and the family against the Minister of Justice which eventually was settled through a payment of 5,000 rand. A year later, the Johannesburg Sunday Times ran a main leader on imam Haron’s death pointing out that he was innocent of any crime and referred to the whole incident as ‘reprehensible’.
The story of the imam did not end there. A very close friend of mine from Gray’s Inn, Barney Desai, in his 1978 book co-authored with Cardiff Marney entitled ‘The Killing of the Imam’, provided some biographical information about the imam and the circumstances of his detention, interrogation, death and inquest.
In 2005, the imam’s grandson Khalid Shamis, who was making a documentary on his grandfather’s death, contacted Brown for his recollections of how the Security Police tried to prevent the legal team from being represented at the post-mortem. In 2019, on the 50th anniversary of Haron’s death, his family requested a reopening of the inquest into his death. According to Brown, many of the people who were originally involved in the inquest are no longer alive.
This gives rise to various questions as to how far historical trials and enquiries can be reviewed decades later — by whom, on what basis and to what effect. Sadly, many such deaths during the apartheid period remain a mystery, more particularly the deaths in detention of people such as Saloojee, Timol and most famous of all, Steve Biko. In all these cases of human rights abuse, Himie Bernadt, the founder of the firm, remained a pillar for all Brown’s endeavours. Brown credits him with courage, integrity, and unflinching support. Bernadt’s pivotal role in this matter was greatly appreciated and recognised by the Haron family whom Bernadt’s daughter Marian visited on one occasion when she went to Cape Town years later. According to Marian she was ‘wonderfully warmly received’.
In 1970 Brown and his family left South Africa for the United Kingdom where they decided to live permanently. His story here sounds like déjà vu, and I, like many South Africans who lived in exile, can relate to it. The question most South Africans had to face was of professional requalifying. My own experience in Canada came into play.
When I emigrated to Canada I had to requalify because Canada would not allow me to practice in Ontario or in any of the Provinces with a British Bar at Law qualification. I was required to go back to law school to do my LLB. This was after I had practised law in Kenya and defended in some 25 murder cases. Even more intriguing was the fact that the Law Society of Upper Canada was named after William Osgoode, himself a British Barrister trained at the British Inns of Court. I had no choice but had to go back to university and retrain for another three and a half years.
Brown’s book highlights the struggle most exiles face as they try to settle in a new country, notwithstanding the fact that Britain is the seat of the Commonwealth. His connections with lawyers he knew and met served him well, giving him the courage nspiration to start his own law firm called Simanowitz and Brown. While this was a general practice, Brown kept on helping in the defence of political trials in South Africa. One case he was briefed to advise on was a case in which Robert Sobukwe was being libelled by a man called Les De Villiers, a South African Diplomat, in his book South Africa – a Skunk Among Nations. Brown was retained to sue for libel on Sobukwe’s behalf. Some time after doing so, and taking into consideration procedural constraints, security for costs that had to be deposited, and the common sense option of exploring the possibility of a negotiated settlement, a resolution was agreed where Sobukwe’s name was fully cleared, an agreed amount of damages was paid to him and his legal fees were paid by the opponent.
This was perhaps a precursor to the pioneering role Brown was to play years later in Mediation in the United Kingdom. The book then regales us with the role Brown played in London in providing legal assistance to political prisoners associated with the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO).
The book describes Brown’s life in the UK, his sporadic contacts with stalwart freedom fighters such Oliver Tambo and Yusuf Dadoo, both of whom lived in his neighbourhood, his work for political dissidents in South Africa and, most importantly, his work for the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF) in Geneva whose office was infiltrated by Craig Williamson, who masqueraded as a freedom fighter but was a spy for the South African Bureau of State Security (BOSS) and the person responsible for many covert operations leading to the assassination of many freedom fighters. Perhaps at that time Brown was not aware of the enormous risks he was taking as the South African government had infiltrated many organisations in Britain and elsewhere.
The rest of the book speaks of Brown’s legal practice and his encounter with the field of mediation in which he played a seminal role in the 1980s and 90s — including co-founding the Family Mediators Association, setting up mediation for the family lawyers’ organisation, the Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA, subsequently renamed Resolution) and training mediators under the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR). Brown played a pioneering role training the first cohort of the Chairs of the Ismaili Conciliation and Arbitration Boards, a global network of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) boards set up by the Aga Khan under the Ismaili Constitution and operating in some 22 countries of the world. Brown’s passion for mediation reflects his concern for ensuring that justice is, and remains, the end product of law which he practised with forensic skill for many years.
The value of the book
I find A Lawyer’s Odyssey a very interesting book for three main reasons:
Firstly, it pieces together interesting developments by a person who was personally involved in many cases but unfortunately has never come to know what happened in all of them. Brown, through meticulous research, traces developments and fills in many missing details. He does this without exaggerating his own role, and in the process helps his reader to encounter people they themselves had forgotten. His recall is very clear and convincing and corroborates what others have written. He does this without arrogating to himself any importance, though what comes through very eloquently is that, despite having the choice to ignore human rights abuses and live a life of comfort, he dared to challenge the arrogance of power and often risked his own life as well as the safety of his family.
In the second instance his narrative finds resonance with all immigrants. It reflects the courage needed to resettle in a new country, which millions have to do in today’s conflicted and globalised world. His anecdotes are earthy and enjoyable for all those who have run legal practices. His foray into the realm of ADR is interesting and he brings to the practice of mediation a rich dimension, showing how law and mediation can and must work together in a symbiotic relationship in the manner the great Harvard negotiation specialist, Robert Mnookin, refers to when he says, ‘negotiations always take place in the shadow of the law’.
In the third instance Brown’s book reflects on the present globalised world, riddled with various phobias based on the exclusion of the ‘other’ and those who are not like us. Without using the word pluralism, Brown advocates for more inclusivity based on a genuine respect for diversity and a readiness to listen to the voice of the other.
Three aspects that Brown highlights are law, justice and humanity, politics and humanity, and connectedness and humanity. In the first case, he reminds us that the law can be abusive but at the same time it can also be used to uphold justice. He sees humanity as an important inspiration as well as an aspiration for lawyers when engaging the law to ensure that it is used as an instrument of justice. As for politics and humanity, he calls for greater give and take rather than an adversarial culture which today is sadly leading to serious and debilitating impasses. And as for connectedness, Brown highlights the urgent need for ubuntu, ensuring that we work together in an increasingly interconnected world where climate change and the pandemic threaten us all. He emphasises that the situation is urgent and calls for unified action but always underpinned by humanity and compassion which has characterised his own life and practice and which his book captures so eloquently.