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Percy Yutar

Percy Yutar (29 July 1911 – 13 July 2002) was the first Jewish attorney-general in South Africa. He was one of eight children in a family of Lithuanian immigrants (his father's original name was "Yuter").[1] He secured Nelson Mandela's conviction and sentence of life imprisonment.


  • Early life 1
  • The Rivonia trial and support for apartheid 2
  • Involvement in the Jewish community 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6

Early life

Percy Yutar was born in the Cape Town suburb of Woodstock of parents who had come to South Africa from the ghettos of Lithuania, like the majority of the country’s strong Jewish community. Percy was one of eight children and money was scarce. As a young man, he had to work in his father’s butcher shop.[2]

Yutar attended the University of Cape Town on a scholarship, and in 1937 received his doctorate in law. But despite his education, given the prevalence of antisemitism in South Africa at the time, he had to work, for five years, in a lowly legal position at the post office. In 1940, he was appointed a junior state prosecutor and eventually become Deputy Attorney General, first in the Orange Free State, and later in the Transvaal.[3]

The Rivonia trial and support for apartheid

Yutar was the prosecutor in the 1963 Rivonia Trial against Nelson Mandela and 9 others. Yutar charged the defendants with sabotage and conspiracy, instead of the more serious crime of treason. Mandela and 7 co-defendants were convicted, while two were acquitted. During sentencing, Yutar argued that the full weight of the law should be brought to bear on the defendants, but did not specify whether he believed the defendants should be executed or sentenced to prison. Since the death penalty was rarely used for sabotage and conspiracy, Justice Quartus de Wet sentenced the defendants to life in prison. Anti-apartheid activists condemned the guilty verdict, but were relieved that Mandela had not been charged with treason and would not be executed. [4]

During the trial Yutar brutally cross-examined some of the defendants.[2] Yutar even carried out a hostile cross-examination of Alan Paton who had appeared in mitigation of sentence.[3] Mandela and 7 others were sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage; two were acquitted. Yutar accused the defendants of telling lies to the world that Africans in South Africa were oppressed. In truth, he said, Africans were peaceful, law-abiding and loyal to the regime.[5]

When Mandela was taken in chains from Pretoria to

Further reading

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  2. ^ a b c
  3. ^ a b c
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c d
  6. ^ a b


See also

For about 11 years Yutar was chairman of the United Hebrew Congregation, which was a collection of Orthodox synagogues in Johannesburg.[6]

Involvement in the Jewish community

Yutar was a controversial figure whose "vengeful and forbidding image as a relentless opponent of the anti-apartheid struggle contrasted with his private persona as a gentle and devoted husband and father, who loved classical music".[5]

Decades later, in November 1995, a forgiving Mandela invited Yutar to a Kosher lunch, and allegedly said that [Yutar] was simply doing his duty as state prosecutor.[5]

[3] Years later, after the end of apartheid, Yutar stated that he believed that he had in fact saved the lives of the Rivonia defendants, by charging them with sabotage instead of treason. In his last recorded interview he stated: "If I had merely even asked for the death penalty, the judge would have granted. . . . They would have been named martyrs and that would have led to a hellish revolution, and a bloody civil war. And I have not the slightest doubt that I acted correctly, and saved this country." But

[6], confirmed that Yutar "was loved by the security police. They told me they loved him because he did their bidding. What they wanted, he did, including all his histrionics in court."Johannesburg in The Rand Daily Mail, former deputy-editor of Benjamin Pogrund [5]

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