Jeremy Gauntlett: Meet Mandela’s man

I meet Jeremy Gauntlett on a crisp winters’ day but he is already concerned about the state of the British weather. The venerable Zimbabwe-born barrister is no stranger to London’s idiosyncratic climate, having been a tenant at Brick Court Chambers for eight years but he is now here to stay, having signed up as a full member.

His daughter might soon venture to London too and he says with a wry laugh, “I hope she does, but whether she stays is another matter, it could be a case of getting some wonderful experience over here and then going in search of a better climate…”

The weather – and some equally idiosyncratic plumbing in his new home – might be causing teething problems but there is no doubt the man who is best known as Nelson Mandela’s former counsel is happy to be here. London should be happy to have him.

The Oxford-educated silk, born in Zimbabwe to an English father and an African-born mother, is a former chairman of the General Council of the Bar of South Africa and president of the Cape Bar. He has been counsel to four South African presidents and three Nobel Prize winners as well as having helped write the nation’s first democratic constitution. In a period when the world is still coming to terms with the death of the towering South African icon, few are feeling it as keenly.

“He had a remarkable moral glow to him,” says Gauntlett of Mandela. ”He could be very astute and didn’t like opposition but dealt with it by making it very uncomfortable for people to be on any side opposite him. He was enormously principled.”

“I woke up that morning having thought that it would happen weeks before and suddenly the shock…but it was a release in the circumstances.”

Gauntlett’s own story begins in Zimbabwe, where he grew up after his father took up colonial service in what was then Southern Rhodesia.

“I went to school there and then to the University of Stellenbosch because my mother worked as a book keeper in a solicitors firm,” he recalls. “They said there was a very good law faculty there and that ‘it would do the boy good to learn Africaans’, so the boy went there.”

That was followed by a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and his first trip to England, which proved more familiar than expected.

“The interesting thing is if you grew up in the colonies you had to learn all about the Pennine Way and flowers you’d never seen, so it was very curious because suddenly you were seeing things that were making connections,” he says.

But the silk’s now towering career really got moving after he started at the bar in 1977. He started out with “the only kind of work we could be trusted with, which was unpaid capital offences.

“I was fortunate in that I took points of such complexity that I didn’t understand them and the executive took pity on my clients,” he says. ”We were all there was, these were people without access to legal aid, what the bar was doing was making available members who were doing it for a pittance.”

The experience has given him an acute disdain for capital punishment, “because of its irreversibility and its high risk. It’s a turn of the roulette wheel very often.”

I take the moment to ask him about his thoughts on UK legal aid. In what proves to be typically modest fashion he demurs from criticising the British system outright. “I wouldn’t presume to, as a new boy on the block, be analysing it,” he says.

But when pushed he admits to being “very troubled” over the changes.

“I’ve followed this from afar and obviously been very troubled,” he reveals. ”Though one has to be careful as a lawyer to be saying the only thing that should be exempt from restraint on expenditure is us.”

Though he might be reticent to “presume” to make any judgements on our legal system, he would be well placed. The softly-spoken silk was called to the London bar in 1993 and was made a Middle Temple bencher.

But his intimidating CV also includes being involved in writing South Africa’s first democratic constitution – ”a wonderful period” he says, “they were ‘days of hope’, to use Andre Malreax’s phrase.”

He also counts among his confidantes Sydney Kentridge, the legendary 90-year-old barrister famed for his work defending Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Chief Albert Luthuli as well as the Biko family.

“It was my privilege to be his junior in half a dozen cases,” says Gauntlett, “including some truly memorable ones such as the end conscription campaign.

“I met him as a law student and he landed me in a great deal of trouble because I invited him to speak with the head of the bureau of state security at Stellenbosch in 1970.

The twinkle in his eye belies some excellent stories, “we remain good friends and I am a complete admirer,” he says.

More recently Gauntlett has been working on an ongoing rights battle brought by white Zimbabwean farmers against the government, one of the first cases brought in front of the Southern African Development Community Tribunal in 2007.

Following what Gauntlett calls a “devastating set back for the rule of law” the tribunal resolved in 2012 to limit its aegis to disputes between member states, no longer hearing claims brought by individuals looking for justice.

“It’s been a devastating set back for the enforcement of human rights in the region because the Tribunal could sit with an eye on the European Court of Human Rights and the idea that there would be a last recourse if you had domestic courts failing people, as it does often.”

He has now taken the case to the African Commission on the way to the African Court of Human Rights.

He is clearly fascinated by the law, to the extent he sees reading as guilty pleasure – even if he does sometimes stray beyond a lever arch file. Why does he love it so much?

“Law is a form of surgery, you’ve got to know what you’ve got to get through to get to what matters and not be distracted by the epidermis of the case,” he says. ”The critical thing is knowing that it’s the liver or cornea that you’re getting at and not confuse the two.

“Overwhelmingly law is a common language. Legal principles to the exent that they survive are mongrel, vital principles. They are not purist in conception. Whether people like it or not it is the creolised, mongrolised, vibrant legal principle, whether it’s rule or evidence, it will, like water finding its own level find its application and acceptance pretty much across the world.”

”It’s very difficult to be chauvinist about law any more,” he adds, “and that’s what’s exciting about it.”

Has that excitement translated to his own family? The fact that his three daughters have now graduated is part of the reason Gauntlett is here today and one looks set to follow in his footsteps.

In his self-effacing manner he says, “the other two have got far more creativity and spark than I have so they are doing different things but that’s good. Legal families can at times be a little stifling, I think legal parents are quite dynastic.”

His three daughters then, graduated – “though that’s no indication of severance from my credit card” – are based in South Africa. What of that region left without its famous leader?

“The transition to democracy was wonderful inspiring time to live through,” he says wistfully, “but the problem now is that there is an inevitable return to the ordinary operation of politics. It’s a problem of being deprived of great moral leaders, as India must have gone through too when it lost Gandhi.

“There is certainly a sense of heightened tension and concern that what we are at the moment living through is series of lost opportunities because you have that legacy built up and what seems to be going through a period of non fulfilment of the promises made.”

At the end of our time together he shows me to the door, stopping to look at a portrait of Kentridge – “described as the finest advocate the world has ever seen”.

But he doesn’t want to show me Kentridge but the portrait next to him of his clerk.

“I think people often forget how important clerks are,” he says, having thanked both a cleaner and another member of staff on our way out.

As long as the weather doesn’t get him down, those clerks will be glad to have him.