For the love of justice

In For the Love of Justice, my father incisively comments on many of these tumultuous events, bringing to them the personal experiences and emotions of one who lived through most of them.

Leo Lovell in a contemplative mood (photo credit: Courtesy)
Leo Lovell in a contemplative mood
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This is the story of my father, Leo Lovell, a lawyer, soldier, anti-apartheid parliamentarian in South Africa, Swaziland’s first minister of finance, a Jewish communal leader, and above all a dedicated critic of racism and oppression.
His lifetime (1907-1976) spanned many momentous events: the First World War and its repercussions; the rise of Fascism and Communism; the emergence and growth of Nazism leading to World War II, and the aftermath of that war.
In South Africa, major political changes and intense struggles took place after the war, leading to the creation of a battlefield scenario that demanded from each thinking individual a strong decisive viewpoint and a willingness to fight for their principles.
In his autobiography, For the Love of Justice, my father incisively comments on many of these tumultuous events, bringing to them the personal experiences and emotions of one who lived through most of them.
I spent much of my last year in South Africa before making aliyah in 2009, bringing into publication an autobiography which he had completed shortly before undergoing the operation in 1976, which brought to an end his remarkable life. His life and standpoint on the important issues upon which he commented and with which he was confronted can, since the publishing of the book, be assessed with the valuable knowledge and relevance of hindsight.
He traces his journey through life from his birth in the small village of Willowmore in the Eastern Cape to his education at Grey College in Port Elizabeth and Rhodes University in Grahamstown. He describes the wonderment of his discovery of the classical philosophers at age 14, which influenced so much of his thinking in later life.
Quite by chance while in the school library, he had come across one of the celebrated works of Plato, entitled The Apology.
It is a speech made by Socrates, fighting for his life before a jury of Athenians in the year 399 BCE. Socrates had spent his life in pursuit of truth and wisdom. In so doing, he had been exposing falsehood, ignorance and hypocrisy wherever he found them – “a dangerous occupation in any age!” Socrates was sentenced to death by the jury.
During the apartheid years, upon witnessing the oppressive and prejudiced values of the Nationalist Government and the punishment meted out to those who fought against them, my father recalled the speech he had chanced upon in those early years and noted how “in the long and sorry tale of man’s inhumanity to man, how many other fine men have been consigned to the dungeons or to torture or to the cross or the stake, for daring to question the lies and villainies of their age.”
Lovell peruses a local newspaper (Credit: Courtesy)Lovell peruses a local newspaper (Credit: Courtesy)
This chance encounter with Plato and Socrates at such a young age was later to influence his thoughts and actions during the challenging apartheid era in South Africa. He went on to study Greek, Latin and Hebrew at Rhodes University, and his love of the classics remained with him throughout his life. This chance discovery was also one of the factors that stimulated his interest in law. He moved to Johannesburg where he studied as an external student, and at the age of 20 qualified as a lawyer.
His first post was a temporary stint in the office of I.A. Maisels, later to become leader of the Johannesburg bar, a judge in Rhodesia, and the judge president of the Court of Appeal in the British Protectorates. Maisels became famous as the victorious advocate for the accused in the Treason Trial in South Africa. My father described this short interlude with the following words: “Once again I was fortunate in more ways than one, for I found not merely an office, but a lifelong friend.”
In March 1930, he arrived in Benoni as a complete stranger to take up a permanent position with Philip Robinson, attorney-at-law. It was to be his home for 31 years. It was there that he set up his own practice, met the girl he was to marry, made many friends, and “fought many battles – in the courts, on the hustings, and during one menacing period, on the streets.”
Although somewhat distanced from the mainstream of events taking place in Europe in the 1930s, he describes in his autobiography his awakening to the dangerous rise of antisemitism in Europe and the start of the Nazi movement in South Africa.
He tells of a number of incidents that brought him to realize how crucial it was to be armed with understanding of the national and international scene in order to find answers to the many questions to which these threatening events gave rise, such as, “What were the causes of antisemitism?” “Why was it so easy for any shabby demagogue to get people to believe the vilest things about Jews?” “What was the relationship between anti-democratic propaganda and antisemitism?” “What made a cultured people like the Germans so ready to discard their freedom and blindly follow a cruel and violent fanatic?”
I don’t think he found the answers to all these questions, but it changed him from what he called “the naive, non-politically-minded ‘idiot’ (used in the sense of the Greek word idiotes – meaning a private person disinterested in public affairs)” into someone who had read whatever books he could lay his hands on dealing with current affairs, international politics and recent history.
He describes his metamorphosis thusly: “The assault on the democratic way of life and the rule of law by the fascists in Europe had alarmed me. It was Hitler who taught me to take an interest in politics. The appearance of the Nazis in the heart of my home town had virtually plummeted me into the public arena. I had left my ivory tower with a vengeance to make my debut in the most unexpected of places – the streets.”
He was referring to his leadership role in ridding Benoni, his home town, of the scourge of the Greyshirt movement, a South African Nazi movement that existed during the 1930s and 1940s. It was during this series of events in Benoni in the late 1930s that he first demonstrated the courage, decisiveness and ability to convert thoughts into action, which characterized the rest of his life.
HE FOLLOWED with deep interest the events which heralded the outbreak of World War II, and agonized when South Africa became divided on whether the country should remain neutral, join the war on the side of Germany, or come in on the side of the allies.
He finally breathed a sigh of relief when General Smuts won the day by a small majority, and South Africa joined the allied offensive. There was no compulsory conscription, but without hesitation he left his family, his law practice and his life “to fight to save the world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defense of all that is most sacred to man.”
My father spent five years in the South African army, four of those in the East African campaign – “up north,” as it was commonly known. Upon returning to South Africa, he was co-opted into the South African Air Force, where he was tasked with writing its “Manual of Administration,” a mammoth task that he completed in three months.
This achievement led a few years later to his being invited by the newly created State of Israel to assist in organizing the establishment of a full-fledged air force. He describes his reaction to the invitation in the following words: “My heart leapt at the thought. My love for Israel was unbounded. The manual of administration I had written was fresh in my memory. I was bubbling with excitement – what a splendid adventure!”
Unfortunately, he was unable to take up this offer as it came at the same time as his nomination as candidate for the Labour Party in the Benoni by-election. He pondered how different his life would have been had he accepted the chance to play such an important role in Israel as it faced its existential fight against the Arabs in 1948.
If I were to choose one major event that greatly impacted my life and that of our family, it would be my father’s election to the South African Parliament in 1949, one year after the Nationalists came to power. It was a crucial time, a turning point in the history of South Africa. The nine years he spent in Parliament became, without doubt, the most important period in his life.
Barbara Brown (center) and her family, all of whom live in Israel (Credit: Courtesy)Barbara Brown (center) and her family, all of whom live in Israel (Credit: Courtesy)
During the ensuing decade, he and his party (which included two Jewish members, Hymie Davidoff and Alex Hepple), were the most vocal and fervent opponents of the apartheid policies in the country. At the time, Helen Suzman was still a member of the United Party, and as such, subject to party policy decisions that often meant crossing the floor to vote with the Nationalists. His speeches show a very dedicated opposition to the Nationalist Party policies. They were eloquent, hard-hitting and courageous, delivered in a charged atmosphere that labeled critics as Communists and punished the outspoken under the Suppression of Communism Act.
There were two important factors that set him apart from many of the Jews who fought against apartheid in those years. The first was his underlying motivation that was directly linked to his identity as a proud Jew. He felt strongly that Jews, given their own history and experience of prejudice, had a particular duty to oppose apartheid and all it stood for.
Many of the other Jewish opponents of apartheid were motivated by Communist ideals, which were not in any way related to Judaism or Jewish history. This strong view was demonstrated in a letter he wrote to the chairman of the Jewish Board of Deputies in Johannesburg, who had tried to dissuade him from addressing a meeting of the Democratic Association held to protest the government’s Group Areas Act.
The letter argued that the Jewish point of view on prejudice and racial discrimination as expressed in the Group Areas Bill should always be condemnatory, and he ended it as follows: “I claim to be able to say these words as a man and as a Jew, by virtue of the suffering of our people in many lands throughout their history, solely on the grounds of religion or race. That Jewish point of view is to me as clear as the commandment, Thou shalt not steal!”
He stood up strongly against antisemitic remarks from the Nationalist benches, and was not satisfied until he had personally rebuked the perpetrators and received their apologies.
The second factor that contributed to the importance of his role in this era in South African history is because so many other opponents of the government at the time were being silenced by banning, imprisonment, house arrest and other restrictive measures under the new laws of the country. Of the few who were left standing to express abhorrence at the Nationalist government policies, he was one of the most vocal and outspoken.
DURING HIS nine years as a member of parliament for Benoni, he was noted for his integrity and courage. He was described by Deryck Humphriss in his book History of Benoni as “an outstanding representative. He was recognized by the English media for his eloquent attacks on government bills, with The Star newspaper referring to him as ‘the only real opponent of apartheid in Parliament.’”
On one occasion, during the Population Registration debate, his speech was interrupted by a loud shout of “Bravo” from the gallery above, which was quickly silenced by the ushers. He found out only the next day, from a report in the media, that it was the violinist Yehudi Menuhin who had given such a strong seal of approval to his words.
After a debate on the Public Safety Bill, Mr. J. Klees of New York summed up his valuable contribution in the fight against the prejudiced policies of the Nationalist Government in a letter published in The Star on March 5, 1958: “Your great speech of yesterday, as quoted in The New York Times, is one landmark in the perpetual struggle for freedom. To speak like that was a courageous act! You may have thought that you were speaking only for South Africans, but noble words like yours are an inspiration to men of every nation. Warnings against tyranny never fall on utterly barren soil.”
Lovell in Swaziland after the signing of a trade agreement among South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (Credit: Courtesy)Lovell in Swaziland after the signing of a trade agreement among South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (Credit: Courtesy)
In summing up this period in my father’s life, and in assessing this chapter in the history of South Africa, it is important to note that while apartheid left an indelible mark on that country, it has since become the yardstick for measuring other oppressive regimes and human rights abuses. Unfortunately, this form of comparison is often used indiscriminately and without reference to the facts.
In the case of Israel, there is no similarity whatsoever to apartheid South Africa, and the word has become a propaganda tool, manipulated by our enemies, in order to demonize and delegitimize the country.
Leo Lovell’s parliamentary career came to an end when the agreement between the Labour Party and the United Party was revoked, and he was defeated in the 1958 election by a split vote which saw the Nationalist candidate win the election in Benoni. He felt that he could no longer play a relevant role in the violent conflict that he anticipated, in the wake of the repressive laws being promulgated at an ever-increasing pace.
He knew that his strong views of opposition to the Nationalists government laws, and his legal background – which made him a strong adherent and supporter of the rule of law – would not allow him to become a bystander to the atrocities he saw continuing to be consolidated by the South African government. He could see no alternative but to leave the country.
In 1961, he and my mother left South Africa for the beautiful British Protectorate of Swaziland. He opened a branch of his Benoni law practice, became a member of the Bar, and planned to live a quieter, more tranquil life there in semi-retirement.
This reality changed dramatically in 1967 when, at the age of 60 and a year before Swaziland became independent, he was unexpectedly approached by the Swazi King Sobhuza and offered the post of finance minister in the cabinet of the soon-to-become independent country of Swaziland (he was the only white member of the cabinet).
His appointment catapulted him from his semi-retirement into the vibrant interaction of political activity, overseas missions, international conferences, negotiations with African and other states, drawing up and signing of treaties and agreements, introducing annual budgets, and attending to local affairs. He assumed this new role with aplomb, and carried out his duties with a genuine desire to see the country prosper and the condition of all its people greatly improve.
In the interim council that was a prelude to independence, he played an important role in the final negotiations with the British government and greatly contributed to the successful transition of Swaziland from colonial rule to democratic government.
As Swaziland’s first finance minister, he gained membership for the country in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the International Development Association, and attended their annual conferences overseas. He worked tirelessly to improve the economy of Swaziland and create a better life for all its people, interacting with eminent politicians, financial experts and dignitaries from all over the world. The Lovells even entertained British royalty in their home when Princess Alexandra and Angus Ogilvy represented the queen at the second Swaziland Independence celebrations.
He left a lasting mark on Swaziland, and was held in very high esteem by all, including King Sobhuza. A posthumous award and medal were presented to the family by the king, inscribed to: “My trusty and well beloved, Leo Lovell,” and confirmed the great contribution he had made to the development of the country. He had quite unexpectedly been called upon to fill an important role in his new country of choice, and in so doing had proved himself to be a “consummate man of the world and intrepid history maker.”
His was the journey of a man whose thinking was influenced by his rich Jewish heritage, ennobled by the classical philosophers, and enriched by his continual search for knowledge and the quest for truth and justice. Truly, a man worth remembering.
Barbara Brown studied at the University of Witwatersrand, obtaining a BA degree. She worked for a number of years at the Johannesburg Non-European Affairs Department in the Black and Coloured townships under the leadership of the late Dr. Melville Edelstein. Thereafter she entered the business world, where she remained active until making aliyah 10 years ago. She now lives in Netanya