Gerald Mallinick: 'We were dangling a red rag in front of a bull'

Peter Bills
Tuesday 12 May 2009 13:55 BST

In the dark days of South Africa's apartheid past, little victories counted for much. Gerald Mallinick hardly strikes me as a natural born rebel, a riotous objector to Government who could be condemned as a man in the pocket of communism.

Yet Mallinick, one of South Africa's most distinguished lawyers, has a background of which he should be proud. His was the legal firm which represented a large number of the Robben Island prisoners for many years and in Judy Moon, they had a gutsy paralegal who was to become famously associated with the prison and one of the prisoners in particular.

But Mallinick's work for what should be called the cause of decency and mankind also traversed other fields. He took on the apartheid Government in a legal and sporting sphere and was Chairman of Greenpoint Cricket Club, whose admission of black players of all standards made a complete nonsense of the ruling party's racially segregated policies, the Group Areas Act and the Separate Amenities Act.

At 70, Mallinick brings a rich and valued perspective to those times that so stained South Africa's history. He is a man who understands implicitly the causes of right and wrong; indeed, he has spent his entire working life defending the indicted, attempting to right the wrongs caused by societies and governments. In South Africa during the apartheid era he and his colleagues had a vast field in which to operate.

"When the Ministry of Defence announced that South Africa was at war and the Republic needed to be defended, they put out pamphlets based on the false information that the End Conscription Campaign was promoting insurrection. We applied for a restraining order to stop them and won the case" he said.

As head of the legal firm originally established by himself, his father, Michael Richman and Cyril Ress, Gerald understood the difficulties of operating under the withering eye of an apartheid Government. Judy Moon, who worked for the firm, travelled to Robben Island on legal matters but largely to provide moral and material support to the prisoners who needed study material, musical instruments, newspapers and other comforts.

Leave aside for a moment, images of Nelson Mandela walking free in triumph from his prison cell. Put away thoughts of fifteen years of dramatic progress and the new Rainbow nation. Mallinick's memories reveal another world, another side to this country and its history. Manifestly, it is not a past of which South Africa should be proud.

"In the 1980s, we were the first white law firm to admit black partners. It was an offence under the Group Areas Act and was a significant anti-apartheid step. I believe we were among the very few law firms that ran a civil rights practice in tandem with a commercial practice. It was very dangerous politically. They could have put us in jail under the 180 day law and that could have destroyed our practice. They did that to some companies and to the late Dullah Omar who later became the Minister of Justice.

"We had a lot of contact with the prisoners. We used to send the young guys (in our firm) out to the island. The prisoners used to run their own passive resistance campaign and that's how they survived as a political entity, to maintain political cohesion and their own morale and self respect.

"We were aware that we were dangling a red rag in front of a bull. Strangely, no-one did anything to us. But at some small firms with an anti-apartheid profile with black lawyers, individuals were eliminated by the security police or their agents."

Mallinick's began their association with the Robben Island prisoners around 1970, just a couple of years after they were incarcerated. His own memories of that time are grim.

"It was very, very tough then. There were some hard people in charge over there. I went on a few occasions, going over on the prison boat, and it was intimidating. You felt people's lives were controlled down to the last piece of tissue paper, as to what they could and couldn't do. There were up to 1000 prisoners detained there and we saw a wide range of people. Many were our clients."

How did Mallinick, a sensitive man, view this large group of caged human beings ? "My over-riding feeling was, it was a miracle they were able to maintain their morale. They presented themselves as if they were ordinary citizens, men able to offer much to their society and good, upstanding people. That was down to their leadership. I met men such as Mandela and Kathrada and their strong leadership was clearly evident.

"I never felt anybody deserved to be there because they were all fighting for freedom and struggling to live in a democratic country. I was ashamed that apartheid ruled our country and that it besmirched our reputation everywhere. It was a grim experience going there; the terrain is terribly bleak. It's not a beautiful place and it had been a prison on and off for 200 years."

Judy Moon, who so often visited the prisoners on behalf of the firm, became friends with one of the prisoners, Tokyo Sexwale, now famous as a politician and businessman, who was to serve 10 years on the island. Today, of course, they are man and wife.

Why was Gerald Mallinick so keen to rattle the cage of the odious apartheid government? "I think my father imbued me with very liberal values. He defended a lot of people in group areas cases. He lived long enough to see that democracy and the end of apartheid in this country."

How significant was such resistance to apartheid ? "I honestly don't know" he tells me. "Resistance to apartheid was not a monolithic thing. But it was hard. A black lawyer in Natal got himself and his wife killed. We went as far as we possibly could, as far as white people could go without being demolished by the state. Of course, there was a danger they could shut us down; they did that to James Kantor in Johannesburg. They accused him in a treason trial which was total nonsense. He was found not guilty but his business was destroyed."

Several of Mallinick's civil rights lawyers of those days have become fantastic commercial and regulatory lawyers. His own firm amalgamated with the prestigious corporate law firm Webber Wentzel earlier this year where he still practises as a consultant with his characteristic energy and optimism.

But when he looks back on those times, he wonders aloud 'How the hell did we survive all that' ? For a start, a huge amount of the civil rights work they did was not paid or, if it was, very poorly. They had about 40 lawyers in those days and as many as 10 would have worked in this field.

But it wasn't just Robben Island inmates they represented. "(The apartheid Government Minister) Piet Koornhof wanted to demolish 'Crossroads' and we had a running battle for two years over that. Michael Richman worked on that case and we took on the Government and won. I sometimes think, what would have happened to that quarter of a million people if we hadn't won ? I guess they would just have been thrown into the gutter."

Threats ? Mallinick can't remember many during his days as a lawyer, but he knew a few as Chairman of Greenpoint Cricket Club. And for sure, Gerald Mallinick loves cricket, always has done. Yet the difficulties existed there too, of course. "Some people thought that mixed cricket would signify the end of civilisation".

But forget, for a moment, the legal stuff and his years of resistance to the government. He genuinely believes his greatest triumph was taking five wickets in seven balls in 1963 for his club's 2nd XI in Johannesburg. 77-4 became 80 all out as Mallinick's devilish bowling destroyed the innings. He saw Basil d'Oliveira play in Cape club cricket many times, and the memories are vivid. His was the first club to go non-racial in the Western Cape.

They invited a Malay cricketer to play in League matches which tested the government's policy on sport. His name was 'Tiny' Abed, and Mallinick reckons he was 41 when he joined them, but still an excellent player. "It grew very quickly and we ended up with about 20 black guys at our club, one of whom was Omar Henry who went on to play for South Africa. These guys wanted to play on better facilities and Greenpoint was the first Premier Division white club to welcome them.

"All this talent could not progress because South Africa was in isolation. When I first met Abed, I said to him 'Why don't you just come and play for us. Maybe they'll put both of us in prison but let's see'. He was brave enough to do that.

"This was the first time it had happened in the Cape. But after that, many clubs became multi racial."

And d'Oliveira? "I saw him bat many times in those days and he looked a wonderful player. He could make 200 in an hour; every second ball disappeared for six."

Gerald Mallinick smiles, and reflects. Should the apartheid nightmare have ended earlier, I ask him ? For sure, he says. "It took 10-15 years to end when it should have taken two. That was because everybody was staring at each other from the dug outs. Had the world stopped playing sport with South Africa years before, there is no question apartheid would have ended earlier because sport is absolutely essential to the South African psyche."

Where then those so-called brave but in reality so misguided British & Irish Lions, New Zealand and French rugby teams who kept on touring, kept propping up the evil regime? As they say in Gerald Mallinick's world, 'I rest my case'...

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