Advocate Israel “Isie” Aaron Maisels was born on 19 November 1905 in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng), South Africa. His father, Henry Maisels, had come to South Africa with his siblings and parents in the 1890s from Pokroy, a small village in Lithuania and his mother, Andzia Maisels, from Lodz in Poland.

He attended Marist Brothers’ preparatory and high school and received his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, graduating from the law school in 1927. He married Muriel Honor Maisels on 28 June 1934 and the couple has four children.

Following his graduation, he served in a firm of attorneys for two years as an articled clerk and was admitted to the Bar as an advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa in 1930. In May 1940 he volunteered for the South African Armed Forces and was assigned to the Air Force Intelligence and dispatched to Nairobi, Kenya. He returned to South Africa in 1941 and was discharged from the Army with the rank of Major in October 1944. Prior to his discharge, he declined an offer of the position of Judge Advocate of the Armed Forces.

Advocate Maisels’ law practice grew rapidly, and he was appointed a King’s Counsel (KC) in 1948 and Queen’s Counsel (QC) following the death of King George VI. He served as the Chair of the Johannesburg Bar Council from 1952 -1960 and was the Vice-Chair and Acting-Chair of the General Council of the South African Bar from 1954 – 1960. In his position as leader of the Johannesburg Bar, he opposed several pieces of oppressive legislation enacted by the government, including the Suppression of Communism Act, which led to the persecution and imprisonment of many, but his commercial practice flourished.

In 1956, a Vickers Viscount aeroplane operated by the Central African Airways (CAA) disintegrated over Tanzania, killing all passengers and crew. Advocate Maisels represented the CAA and was able to demonstrate that the crash was the result of metal fatigue due to faulty material. Vickers Armstrong paid all damages claimed as well as the legal costs. In 1960 David Pratt attempted to assassinate the South African Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, who survived the attack. Advocate Maisels defended Pratt who was found guilty but insane and committed to a mental institution where he committed suicide one year later.

Advocate Maisels was a judge of the High Court of Rhodesia and the Judge President of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. He practised law in South Africa from 1928 until his retirement in 1992 and was widely regarded as “pre-eminent among his generation of advocates” and “one of the country’s most formidable legal minds.”

In addition to a legal practice, he is best known for his defence of those prosecuted for their political beliefs and “as a man whose life and interests reflected a deep concern for human rights and civil liberty.” He was the leader of the defence team in the famous South African Treason Trial of 1956 to 1961 in which the accused, including [former South African President]  Nelson Mandela, were all acquitted as well as numerous other cases in which he represented individuals adversely affected by the apartheid government's oppressive legislation. He served on the bench of the High Court of Southern Rhodesia from May 1961 to June 1963.

Maisels represented the Consolidated Diamond Mines of South West Africa (CDMSWA) in what came to be known as “the great Southwest African Diamond Case.” The Anglo-American Corporation, of which Sir Ernest Oppenheimer was the chairman, owned the CDMSWA. The case involved an area of some 10,000 miles of the West Coast of South-West Africa (now Namibia) and the question of the rights to prospect for diamonds between the high and low watermarks along the beaches. In a case that lasted more than one year, Advocate Maisels was successful in securing the sole and exclusive rights for CDMSWA.

Advocate Maisels is best known for his role as the leader of the defence team (that included Advocate Abram "Bram" Fischer and Sir Sydney Kentridge), in the 1956 South African Treason Trial in which 156 people of all races, including Chief Albert Luthuli, president of the African National Congress (ANC), Oliver Tambo, the ANC vice president and Nelson Mandela were arrested in December 1956 and charged with treason.

Following a preparatory examination which ended in January 1958, the charges against Chief Albert Luthuli, who gave evidence as a witness in the trial and Tambo, were withdrawn and 91 individuals, including Nelson Mandela, were committed for trial. The trial which attracted much international attention was in two parts - the First and Second Indictment. The First Indictment commenced on 1 August 1958. The State’s case was cumbersome and vague and, on 13 October 1958, it was withdrawn by the State after being picked apart by Advocate Maisels and his legal team. The State rallied, however, and the same trial, this time with fewer defendants (but including Mandela), commenced in August 1959.

Following the Preparatory Examination, when the accused approached Advocate Maisels to take charge of their defence, he insisted that the defence, in this case, be conducted strictly on legal, and not political, grounds. Although the defendants initially opposed this, it subsequently proved to be the appropriate strategy. This Second Indictment was more specific than the First and alleged that the defendants intended a violent overthrow of the Apartheid government. The trial finally ended in March 1961 with the acquittal of all the accused. During the trial, Advocate Maisels cross-examined Professor Andrew Murray who the Crown called as an expert on communism.

In the cross-examination, Advocate Maisels enumerated the multiple discriminatory laws that had been passed for decades against the black peoples of South Africa and became increasingly harsh and more pervasive following 1948 when the Nationalist Party (NP) Government came to power. Following this exchange, Duma Nokwe, a lawyer who had been one of the initial accused but dismissed following the preparatory examination, asked Advocate Maisels whether he had the notes on his cross-examination and when asked why he said: “I would like to get those notes because I did not know things were quite so bad.”

Following the Treason Trial, Advocate Maisels moved to Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe) in 1961 where he served as a judge of the high court. Soon after his arrival, however, Northern Rhodesia withdrew from the Rhodesian Federation, and the Southern Rhodesian government was replaced by a right-wing party which led to the passage of increasingly harsh legislation which Maisels could not condone.

He resigned his position in 1963 and returned to South Africa becoming an executive director of the OK Bazaars, the largest South African retail company of its time, where he worked for seven years before returning to the Bar in 1970 where he rapidly resumed a busy practice.

In 1966 he was appointed as a Justice of the Appeal Courts of the former British Protectorates, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. As these courts only sat for 2-3 months of the year, he continued his law practice at the Johannesburg Bar. He was subsequently appointed Judge President (Chief Justice) of all three countries and served until his retirement in 1987. In 1974 he represented the Rhodesian African National Congress in their talks with the then Rhodesian government at the Victoria Falls. In 1977 he served on a two-person commission of the Medical Association of South Africa to investigate the death in detention of the Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko.

Advocate Maisels was an observant Jew and deeply involved in Jewish and Zionist causes for his entire life. He served as the president of the United Hebrew Congregation and president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the South African Zionist Federation and the Israel United Appeal. He was a member of the Board of Governors of Israel’s Jewish Agency for ten years and a Trustee of the Weizmann Institute. Israeli Prime Ministers whom he hosted, or who enjoyed the hospitality of his home, included Menachem Begin (at the time a member of Israel’s opposition party), Moshe Sharett, Yitzchak Rabin and Ben Gurion (following his retirement).

Honours

  • 1978 – Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of the Witwatersrand
  • 1984 – Commander of the Order of Mohlomi, by King Moshoeshoe ll, Kingdom of Lesotho
  • 1990 – Presidential Order of Honour, Republic of Botswana
  • 1999 – “They Shaped our Century. The Most Influential South Africans of the 20th century.”
  • 2003 – “Maisels Chambers” an office building for Johannesburg barristers, built and named for Isie Maisels and opened by President Mandela in 2003.

Advocate Israel “Isie” Aaron Maisels passed away on 8 December 1994 in Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa. 

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