Raymond Tucker

Campaigning human-rights solicitor in apartheid South Africa
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The Independent Online

Raymond Tucker was one of a tiny handful of solicitors who defied South Africa's apartheid by fighting human-rights cases.

Raymond Tucker, solicitor: born Molteno, South Africa 16 October 1932; married 1971 Pat Schwartz (one son, one daughter); died Johannesburg 9 September 2004.

Raymond Tucker was one of a tiny handful of solicitors who defied South Africa's apartheid by fighting human-rights cases.

It called for exceptional bravery and commitment. As Tucker himself later explained, solicitors who handled political and human-rights issues worked in a climate of threat and hostility from security police, prosecutors, judges and magistrates. Their offices, homes and telephones were bugged, their mail was intercepted and their passports were removed or restricted. They suffered attacks to their persons and property. Some were murdered.

They also had to resort, at great risk, to a variety of devices to obtain funds from abroad to defend their clients in trials that could drag on for many months. One government tactic was to stage trials at a long distance from cities, adding to the physical and financial burdens of the defence. Even more, human-rights solicitors were treated like pariahs in their own profession. Most solicitors were simply too afraid to get involved, and distanced themselves from those who did.

Born in a village in the Eastern Cape, Tucker grew up in Johannesburg. He returned to the Eastern Cape to study at Rhodes University and then did a law degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

He began to devote himself to human rights in the mid-Sixties when he was also active in the Liberal Party, whose non-racial policy enjoyed only minute support in the South Africa of that era. By then, apartheid laws were heavily in place. So, too, was repression of the resistance which had developed. Political trials proliferated.

There was no shortage of barristers willing to act in the many hundreds of trials over the years when thousands of government opponents were prosecuted on charges which could and did result in imprisonment for life or even the death sentence. Solicitors were few in number yet were vital for the grinding groundwork in a trial - dealing face to face with the accused and their families and seeking out witnesses who more often than not were frightened of government retribution. At one stage, in the early Seventies, Tucker was probably the only solicitor in Johannesburg who handled political cases.

He acted in many trials, both major and minor, and gave advice to countless numbers of apartheid victims. He represented Winnie Mandela when she was a particular target for ferocious Security Police harassment. He acted for the Anglican Dean of Johannesburg, the Very Rev Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, who in 1971 was charged under the Terrorism Act with providing financial assistance to detainees, prisoners and their families. He acted for Robert Sobukwe, the Pan-Africanist Congress leader, in his attempt to leave the country - and also went to coach Sobukwe, banished and restricted 300 miles away, for writing entry examinations for law. He acted for political prisoners in their efforts to gain better conditions.

He drafted constitutions and trust deeds for a host of non- governmental and non-profit organisations, helping to strengthen civil society; many of those organisations flourish today. For years he spent Saturday mornings in the office of the Black Sash, the women's anti-apartheid organisation, giving free advice to blacks caught in the coils of the "pass" laws which determined where they could live and work.

His commitment to human rights took him to neighbouring Lesotho, where he acted for opposition activists during the illegitimate rule of a South African-supported prime minister. In the course of contesting the deportation of a South African political refugee Tucker was involved in the last appeal, in 1970, from Lesotho to the Privy Council in London.

Tucker's high-profile involvement in that case cost him a partnership in a legal firm - the other solicitors backed away from him. He later joined another partnership - but quit because he objected to the prescribed fees he was required to charge. Running his own practice, he was known for charging fees that he thought the client could afford. His human-rights work continued after the end of apartheid in 1994. He won a precedent-setting case in the Constitutional Court to gain rights for gay partners and also specialised in labour law.

Raymond Tucker was a modest man, his strength of purpose hidden behind a shy smile. He was for many years an unsung hero but early this year Witwatersrand University awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Benjamin Pogrund