Himie Bernadt, the attorney who protected Nelson Mandela from the vicious prison regime on Robben Island, has died, aged 98. By the time he was forced to retire in 2001, no longer able to drive into his Cape Town office, he had become South Africa’s longest-serving lawyer.
A man of good sense and few words, always softly spoken, Bernadt was born into an immigrant family in Pretoria, the son of a struggling baker. At eight, he endured jibes of “Jood, Jood” (Jew boy) from Afrikaner classmates, until one day he lashed out and was thereafter left alone. After his mother died, the family migrated to Cape Town, and Bernadt moved in with a better-off uncle. He flourished at South African College school before qualifying as a lawyer in 1931.
To begin with his practice covered the rough and tumble of African life – from company law to illicit diamond buying. The first trade union he worked for was a Muslim women’s association. He appeared regularly – and often pro bono – for migrant workers arrested for not having a pass. From the early 1960s, the security chief Colonel Roussouw was forever trying to nail Bernadt. But he was never arrested, or, worse, banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, which would have ended his right to practice. He was too independent to join a political party, although his wife Jean, a member of the South African Communist party, was detained during the state of emergency that followed the Sharpeville shootings in 1960.
The civil rights advocate (and now South African judge) Albie Sachs said that Bernadt worked day in and day out for those in the underground and under banning orders, giving of his best whether for unknown migrant workers or well-known white students. When, in 1964, Sachs himself was detained under the 90-day law, Bernadt succeeded in breaking through the web of isolation with a morale-boosting court application that allowed the detainee reading and writing materials.
In 1963, against the odds, Bernadt secured an inquest into the death of Looksmart Ngudle, the first known ANC guerrilla fighter to die in a police cell. Another battle in 1969 resulted in an inquest for Imam Abdullah Haron, a Pan-Africanist Congress member also murdered in detention.
After the 1964 Rivonia trial, at which Mandela was among those jailed for life, his attorney Joel Joffe (now Lord Joffe of Liddington) asked Bernadt to handle his client’s affairs on Robben island. At first the prisoners were almost totally isolated, enduring strict censorship and with little family contact. Bernadt’s firm represented Mandela when he was charged with breaking prison regulations and again when the Law Society of South Africa attempted to strike the ANC leader, also a lawyer, off the roll. “You were with us in those days,” Mandela reminded Bernadt after his release.
Despite the political traumas of South Africa, the Bernadts, who had married in 1940, managed a lively social round. It was at their home in Kenilworth, near Cape Town, that I listened to Himie describe a visit to Mandela, by then transferred to Pollsmoor prison, during which Afrikaner warders had stood up when the prisoner entered the room – leaving no doubt that a new era loomed for South Africa. Albie Sachs said: “One reason we have a marvellous constitution today is that people like Himie Bernadt kept alive the legality of the law in the most terrible circumstances.”
Bernadt is survived by Jean and their children, Marian, Ian and Morris.
· Himan ‘Himie’ Bernadt, civil rights lawyer, born December 21 1909; died December 25 2007