Charity & social welfare
Joffe, Joel (1 of 7) National Life Stories: Pioneers in Charity and Social Welfare
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Care of Older People
2006-12-18, 2007-04-03, 2007-06-05
The British Library
Joffe, Joel (1932-) (speaker, male)
Brodie, Louise (speaker, female)
Part 1: Joel Joffe [JJ] was born in 1932 in Johannesburg. He had a difficult childhood. His parents were ill assorted. His mother's father was an eminent musicologist in Palestine, and his father was born in Latvia and sent by himself to South Africa at the age of 11 or 13. He had an uncle in Krugersdorp, was given only a couple of years schooling, and worked in a store. Stories. He borrowed some money to buy cigarettes and a cart and went about selling them, eventually becoming a general merchant. He met JJ's mother, who was instructed to marry him. She was full of vitality, while his father was a depressive, worried all the time. [7:23] JJ had an older sister and two younger brothers. His mother's father came to Johannesburg and set up a Reform synagogue, later going back to Germany, Jerusalem and the States. He is notable for writing a thesaurus of Jewish music and the tune "Hava nagila5" His name was Professor Abraham Idelson.[15:13] His grandmother was talented, never given the respect she deserved. Several of her sisters died in the holocaust. JJ remembers sending food and clothing parcels to Israel later. His father's mother set up a butcher's shop in the Latvia ghetto, coming to Johannesburg later. She gave JJ Ð50 to buy a motor cycle, when his father had forbidden it. There was little communication between his father and grandmother, though they visited. [24:53] JJ's sister was a nursery school teacher and social worker and lives in the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg with her husband. JJ's elder brother is an engineer, who, different from JJ, has seen no injustice in South Africa. His younger brother has petit mal epilepsy and is married to a nice woman. [30:10] Aged nine JJ was sent to boarding school. He felt isolated and an outsider. Religion was a part of his upbringing. Uncle Gerry Idelson brought a Rabbi from the States to get the Reform synagogue going and JJ went to schul every Saturday, but he didn't like praying, didn't take it in and the Rabbi labelled him a rebel. [38:38] At his boarding school, the Marist College, they had a much feared head master. JJ set up a competition to see how many "cuts" with the cane they could get. However, when he had reached 90, the master said it was obviously doing no good, so JJ's friend went on to win! JJ was in line to be a prefect, which was stopped, and never got his cricket colours which he should have done, nor a merit award. [46:07] The teaching was very poor, sport was all that mattered. Black servants were treated appallingly as were the few homosexuals. JJ was a good opening bat at cricket, and also played tennis and rugby. Story. [51:53] JJ hated holidays as his parents did not get on. The only effect of the War was that the food was even worse. He recognised injustice from an early age. They lived on Oxford Street, and their Alsatian dogs bit the delivery boys. JJ relates an incident at school too. Their black garden boy William got only ten shillings a month and his mother complained that he smelled. They had two maids, and JJ used to give them all money from time to time. [1:01:48] The house was double storey with one bathroom on three quarters of an acre with a tennis court. JJ used to go to the Plaza cinema for six pence on a Saturday morning. His father always said he was nearly bankrupt, and JJ used to walk so that he would have more money for nigger balls. [1:06:44] JJ read a lot, the newspaper, comics and things like the William books. He spent time in the sanatorium at school where he could listen to the radio. He remembers the Nationalists coming in in 1948 and that it was significant. He had concern for others and was supportive to the less fortunate. He learnt nothing at school and had little respect for the teachers. He remembers a woman coming to the debating society, who said that it was important to be honest with your self, and this stuck with him. He had a poor image of himself at the time and was certainly not confident about girls. He was reactive rather than proactive. [1:19:20] With his mother and siblings he went to Muizenberg at the Cape. His father would have a separate holiday. The sea and the hotel were pleasant. Stories. [1:23:24] Coming up to the matriculation exams he was told that he would fail. He worked hard and got a first class, which he thought at first must be a mistake. [1:28:45] He worked for his father later and sorted out all the accounts in an unusual way. His father was negative about JJ, his mother not close but not malicious. JJ wanted to do medicine, but was hopeless at maths and sciences, so went to do a B Com at Witwatersrand university in Johannesburg. He worked hard, though it was not a good course, made friends, but was still too shy for girls. [1:35:16] He read extensively, but did not get involved with politics. He felt the Communists were abreast of events. Helen Sussman taught them economic history. He spent time with an Indian in his class. He played golf and went about on his motor bike. [1:44:21] He thought after university that he would take a break overseas. He came to the UK and was met by a relative with a flat in Earls Court. Then he went hitch hiking round Europe. This was 1952. He met a girl, Lesley, and they linked up and spent 3 or 4 months going round western Europe for about Ð50. Story of being locked in the back of a lorry. Lesley was an attractive, vivacious person. They ended up in Stockholm, which was little damaged after the war, and JJ got a job as a dishwasher. He and the girl got on well, though there was nothing sexual about their relationship[1:51:26] At this time, France was decrepit, Switzerland nice, Austria had the best youth hostels, in Germany his visa was blocked. In Norway JJ had a great aunt. JJ was pleased with the great experience, the adventure. Back in the UK he went to Pitmans College to learn shorthand and typing, at which he was no good, then back to South Africa through Suez and the eastern route. [2:03:56] JJ had decided to become a lawyer and took up an LLB course part time, and was articled to Edwin Nathan and Friedland, an important commercial firm of attorneys. Philip Friedland did JJ's father's work, and was brilliant and intolerant and loyal. They had made an exception by taking on JJ and he was paid Ð5 a month, but they took an interest in him and trained him well. JJ did a lot of debt collection, and organised the system well. After three years he was paid Ð25. [2:10:06] The lecturers on the course were poor, but good lawyers were trained at that time, Sir Mark Weinberg, Sir Sydney Lipworth and Arthur Chaskelson, [AC] became the future Chief Justice. [2:13:34] At the same time JJ was working for the Legal Aid Bureau, taking cases without payment (and without telling Nathan Friedland). The cases were generally about race classification and the pass laws. Eventually Nathan Friedland got to hear of this, said JJ must stop, so he left the firm. [2:18:02] For the firm he had been doing third party accident cases, for the insurance companies, leases and wills. Stories of cases and suing garage owners and acting against the insurance companies. One family had 3 brothers classified as white, one as coloured and another they wanted to classify as black. JJ stopped this. [2:22:51] On race classification and mixed relationships JJ helped a little. The point of the legislation was to keep the whites superior. Description of how a person's hair would be rubbed to decide whether or not they were black African. The classification would mean changing homes, schools, jobs. They had 30 days to lodge an appeal. Description of process and its technicalities. [2:29:59] Details of one case. The police state was becoming impregnable and JJ felt it would take 50 years to change and put right.
Life story interview with Baron Joel Joffe (1932-), lawyer and former peer.