Defender lauded

2017-11-28 06:00
Michael Donen

Michael Donen

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A local lawyer has been honoured for his role in fighting apartheid.

Advocate Michael Donen was honoured in parliament earlier this month following a motion to recognise his career and contribution to the history of South Africa.

According to a statement by South African Board of Jewish Deputies Cape Council, on which Donen served for over a decade, he sought to change the status quo of the country during a time where there was little political thaw in sight. He played a vital part as human rights lawyer in cases against anti-apartheid activists.

His legal career was shaped by defending political activists during the height of apartheid in pioneering cases that put him at security risk and even saw members of the community ostracise him for doing so.

Donen has been a practising member of the Cape Bar for over thirty years.

As a young lawyer struggling to pay off his debt, Donen worked as a junior prosecutor on the treason trial of ANC leader Tokyo Sexwale in the late 1970s. This was a turning point in his career and he describes it as having a seminal impact on the rest of his life.

“I soon realised I was on the wrong side and after chatting to Sexwale, decided to leave the country, study human rights law further in the United Kingdom and then return to the country to exclusively represent the United Democratic Front (UDF).”

Donen represented, among others, Tony and Lumka Yengeni, Jenny Schreiner and Gary Kruser at their treason trial in 1989-90 together with former chief justice Pius Langa, the late Johnny Issel, one of the founding members of the UDF and Zubeida Jaffe, now an award-winning South African journalist and author, pursuant to their detentions without trial in the 1980s, Ashley Forbes, major-generals Jeremy Veary and Peter Jacobs, and Anwa Dramat (former head of the Hawks) at their terrorism trial in 1998 , assisted by Johnny de Langewho later became the deputy minister of justice.

One of his most notable cases was that of Major-General Mxolisi Petane in 1988. Petane was arrested for terrorism against the apartheid government and his defence claim that he was a prisoner-of-war set a historic precedent in the country.

With the world’s media taking notice of Donen’s defence, Petane had claimed a tremendous political victory for the ANC in court, gaining recognition as a liberation struggle rather than a terrorist organisation. Petane was saved from the death sentence due to this defence and went on to serve the South African National Defence Force as an inspector-general ­later.

Donen says: “During the time of the struggle, I was lawyer to those detained but also worked generally to assist where I could. I manned an advice office in Mbekweni township in Paarl, for instance. I was even instructed to go to Pollsmoor where Trevor Manuel was held without trial ‘just to hug him’.

“There were secret meetings in the middle of the night with the likes of Manuel and Ebrahim Rasool who would give me political direction for the terrorism and treason trials. I enjoyed these creative aspects of my human rights work.”

Member of parliament Michael Bagraim, who raised the motion, says: “It took a great deal of bravery and conviction to defend anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s, at a time when Mandela, Manuel and others were regarded as terrorists by the state.

“Passing this motion in parliament is an acknowledgment of the enormous impact Donen had on the liberation struggle by defending activists. Like many of the lawyers who defended and protected political activists, his remarkable career has gone largely unnoticed by most South Africans.”

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