A moving and eloquent reminder of the law’s power to do good, from a South African attorney (now living in Australia) who helped defend the so-called “Upington 25” in South Africa's largest murder trial.
Born in 1957, Durbach grew up during a time when apartheid seemed invincible and the likelihood of ending it peacefully seemed equally impossible. A daughter of affluent white liberals, Durbach was actively involved in protest politics from high school on, and after graduation from law school she joined one of the few white law firms in Cape Town committed to political work. In 1985, as protests in the black townships escalated, a crowd assembled one day to discuss grievances in the remote rural town of Upington and was attacked by the police. In retaliation, some marched to the home of a black policeman, dragged him outside, and set him on fire. In the first trial that ensued, 25 were found guilty of murder, which under the prevailing legal system automatically carried the death penalty. In 1988, Durbach was asked by charismatic attorney Anton Lubowski to help with the appeal. She accepted readily, although she knew it would be emotionally draining work, a “period of enduring discovery.” She and her colleagues on the defense team fought for extensions and called in experts who evoked the defense of “deindividuation” (a psychological theory that explains individual criminal behavior in crowd situations). During the trial she also got to know the defendants, who included an illiterate grandmother, a boxer, and an artist. When their efforts failed and 14 of the defendants were sentenced to death (with the remainder receiving long jail sentences), an exhausted Durbach headed to Australia on sabbatical. But Mandela’s release changed everything: eventually, 21 of the 25 murder convictions were overturned, and the remaining 4 served brief prison terms.
A memorable dispatch from the frontlines of those who fought for justice in the beleaguered end days of apartheid.