Last of the old-style A-Gs

2013-07-29 00:00

ADVOCATE Tim McNally (74), the last of the old-style attorneys-general of Natal, died at Wembley House, Pietermaritzburg, yesterday afternoon.

McNally fell gravely ill in May this year. He leaves his wife, Gill, three daughters and two grandchildren.

That McNally should have been appointed by the Nationalist government to high office in the Department of Justice, despite the handicaps of being both an English-speaker and a Roman Catholic, speaks much for his ability.

The son of a British army doctor, McNally was born in Faizabad in India in 1938.

Though his father was a doctor, the family had strong links with the law: his maternal grandfather had been a judge in Ireland, his paternal grandfather a magistrate and his elder brother became a judge of appeal in Zimbabwe.

Having spent the war years in Ireland, the family emigrated to South Africa in 1946, where his father set up practice in Bathurst. McNally attended St Aiden’s School in Grahams­town on a scholarship, but straitened family circumstances precluded his being sent to university. So he joined the Department of Justice (in Durban) at the age of 17 in 1955 as a clerical assistant, second grade.

He gained his BA LLB the hard way, by part-time study, paid for by himself. Between 1962 and 1969, he worked as a state advocate in the attorney-general’s office in Pietermaritzburg. It was during this period that he met and married his wife, Gill, in 1968.

Thereafter, he was transferred to the Transvaal A-G’s office, where he became senior counsel in 1974 and was deputy attorney-general of the Transvaal from 1974 to 1984. From 1984 to the end of 1992 he was attorney-general of the Orange Free State, and at the beginning of 1993 was appointed Natal attorney-general.

It was an important office. McNally headed a staff of 43 state advocates and 287 public prosecutors, while eight judges presided over high courts to hear the charges they brought. He claimed that his office achieved a 68% conviction rate.

Probably his most high-profile case was when he charged General Magnus Malan with involvement in the kwaMakhutha massacre, leading the prosecution himself. He did not gain a conviction in this instance. Years later he attributed his failure to the fact that an Afrikaner judge simply could not bring himself to convict a fellow Afrikaner, certainly not one as legendary as Malan.

In the fraught political atmosphere of those years, it was almost inevitable that the post of attorney-general should become highly politicised. McNally found himself the man in the middle between the IFP, which supported him as model of judicial impartiality, and the ANC, which claimed that he had his own agenda and failed to enforce law and order. The ANC even organised a march of protest to his office in August 1998. He was also slandered in a Mail & Guardian article and was paid R50 000 in an out-of-court settlement when he sued that paper for defamation.

By that time the pressure upon him had become insupportable. He was offered, and declined, a post of special director in the office of the national director of public prosecution in Pretoria. His counter-proposal, that he should continue in Pietermaritzburg in a special post focusing on white-collar crime was turned down — a personal meeting with President Nelson Mandela notwithstanding.

And so he took early retirement at 60, which he reached at the end of November, 1998.

McNally was an ardent Roman Catholic and he was certainly one to demonstrate his faith by his works, especially in retirement, when most of his time was devoted to charitable endeavour. He said that what inspired him was the vision of working for Jesus, quoting the passage: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, and thirsty and you gave me to drink”.

He said that he could not imagine meeting Jesus at the gates of heaven and being asked why he did not give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty and clothes to the poor, when this what Jesus expected of him.

During his working life, he served as chairperson of the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and Pietermaritzburg. Rotary International presented him with its highest recognition, the Paul Harris Award, for his outstanding community service.

Other community involvement was serving on the board of the Pietermaritzburg Children’s Home and John Peattie House (for the mentally disabled). He was also chairperson of the Marian Villa Home for the Aged for many years. He served as treasurer and chairperson of the allocations committee of the Pietermaritzburg Community Chest. Well versed in the ways of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, he generated a great deal of money by shrewd equity investments of Chest funds.

Professor Colin Gardner, chairperson of the Community Chest, said of him: “Tim McNally had a wonderful amount of generous energy. Helping people in need, sometimes in the most hands-on way, became a way of life for him.”

However, the charitable endeavour to which he was most committed was the Society of St Vincent de Paul. St Vincent de Paul (SVdeP) was a seventeenth century Catholic priest, much devoted to works of charity.

McNally joined the SVdeP as a young man of 17 and remained devoted to it throughout his life. At the time of his death, he was the treasurer of the St Mary’s Conference after serving as its chairperson for many years, as well as treasurer for KwaZulu-Natal. He served as national chairperson of SVdeP for the maximum permitted six years and continued to act as legal adviser to the national board. Characteristically, he celebrated his 70th birthday by hiring the St Mary’s Parish hall to hold a party for the poor, whom the St Mary’s conference supported.

Given his lifelong dedication to being a “Vincentian”, it was fitting that McNally was awarded the Papal Medal in May 2012, the highest recognition the Catholic Church can bestow on a layman. At a ceremony in St Mary’s church, the medal was presented by Cardinal Wilfrid Napier.

• Jack Frost, a former letters editor at The Witness, became McNally’s friend in his latter years.

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