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Adam Klein – Unsung Hero

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Adam Klein (Born 18 February 1956, deceased 2 July 2011)

Stephan Clingman is the author of a book entitled “Bram Fischer Afrikaner Revolutionary” (1998, University of Massachusetts Press).  In 1964 Bram Fischer led the defence of Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia Trial.  In 1966 Fischer was himself sentenced to life imprisonment in South Africa for his political activities against the policies of apartheid.

Bram Fischer was born on 23 April 1908.  He became a senior advocate and although he was a distinguished lawyer he abandoned the temptations of power and prestige and became a fighter for human rights and justice for all.  He was convicted as a communist and his name was struck from the roll of advocates, the most humiliating fate any lawyer can suffer.  During his trial he addressed the court, starting at 10h00 in the morning and some five hours later he ended his presentation.  He pleaded not guilty to 15 charges brought against him and he concluded with the following: “The law, my Lord, under which I have been prosecuted, was enacted by a wholy unrepresentative body, a body in which three quarters of the people of this country have no voice whatever.  This and other laws were enacted not to prevent the spread of communism, but, my Lord, for the purpose of silencing the opposition of the large majority of our citizens.  The government intent upon depriving them, solely on account of their colour, of the most elementary human rights.”

Bram Fischer was sentenced to life imprisonment on the count of sabotage and twenty-four years on the charges under the Communism Act and to some other minor charges.  It didn’t make a difference as in South Africa life meant life.  Today, Bram Fischer has been reinstated posthumously as advocate.

But since his death in 1975 there never was a person who really, in the sense of being an Afrikaans person, stood out for taking on the system to bring about the demise of apartheid.  Yet, there is one unsung hero – according to Martin Welz, the editor of Noseweek Magazine. In an article published in Men’s Health of November 2003 (at page 248) he says:  “Adam Klein, in his early twenties at the time, was single-handedly responsible for finally sinking the pass laws and the pseudo courts that applied them.  He gave me the story to publish in the Sunday Times.  After that, the security branch agents destroyed his legal career and life.”

Martin Welz referred to his article in the The Sunday Times of 23 November  headed: “Clean-up at pass courts launched”.  It said:  “The Department of Co-operation and Development has embarked on a dramatic clean-up operation in a Commissioner’s Court which enforces the pass laws.  The result from the walk out by Pretoria Commissioner’s Court prosecutor Mr Adam Klein earlier this year and after Sunday Times investigation at the court.” 

It continued:  “Mr Klein’s report on irregularities at the Pretoria’s Commissioners Court to be delivered this week to the Transvaal Attorney General is expected to reopen the controversy about the administration of the pass laws and its impact on blacks.

In this report Mr Klein will allege along with other dramatic disclosures that more than half of the cases concerning the failure by blacks to produce a pass when asked to do so by an authorised officer where incorrectly charged or convicted in the Pretoria Court.”

“Failure to produce a pass is the most common pass offence.”

“On average each person charged with the offence whether found guilty or not spends six days in detention before a trial is completed.”

“As a result black people in Pretoria spent more than 35 000 days in detention last year.”

“This week Mr J H T Mills, director general of Co-oporation and Development, told Sunday Times political correspondent E Wilkens that a conference of all Magistrates in the Commissioners Court will take place early in the new year.”

In the Sunday Express of 12 October 1980 an article appeared with the heading “Adam Klein pays price of rebellion”.  The article was written by Christina Pretorius who stated that a prosecutor’s life is in tatters after his apartheid protest against more than 300 of South Africa’s cruellest laws.  It appeared that since Adam Klein had refused two months before to proceed with the prosecution of five black men charged under the pass regulations, he received death threats from Right Wing Commando Members and he had been arrested on charges of theft of court records.  Adam Klein’s passport had been removed and after appearing in court was given bail.  In addition, he had to resign as prosecutor.  This made matters worse as this meant that he could not continue in his fight against a cruel application of the apartheid system.

The Rapport of 14 June 1981 carried an article by Pieter Schoembie (own translation):  “Prosecutor testifies of irregularities.  Death message, pass and son in court…..”  The article detailed that a young black boy came to Pretoria looking for his older brother to give him the message that their mother had passed away.  The young boy was confronted by the police in town and he learned that the letter from his school principal could not help him as he was not carrying a pass.  The young boy had to go to court.  That was his first appearance in court.

This is only one of the cases that Adam Klein could not forget.  Adam Klein appeared before the Hoexster Commission which was investigating the Courts of South Africa.  He compiled a report in which he listed many irregularities.  The Commissioner in whose court Adam Klein prosecuted, who had an equal rank to a Magistrate, refused to admit to any irregularities – alleging instead that pass law offences were serious and claiming that it formed the basis of the social welfare of South Africa.

Adam Klein lodged a report in excess of 60 pages.  One example of inhumanity he mentioned was that of an elderly man who had to be deported from Pretoria (Transvaal) to the Eastern Transvaal.  Adam Klein refused to do it as the man was very sick and he could not travel.  His plea fell on deaf ears and Adam Klein recalled that his office received a phone call from Waterval Boven saying that the man had passed away en route to Nelspruit.

Another example he mentioned was that of a man from Soweto who had studied in Swaziland, consequently the police alleged that he had become a citizen of Swaziland and therefore an alien!  He was released only many months after his arrest.

Adam Klein staunchly supported the rule of law, righteousness and justice.  As far as we know, he is the only jurist who was employed by the government and stood up against the government in the apartheid years.

For his trouble, Adam Klein was arrested.  I was present when he was arrested in his flat in Pretoria and I still had to peruse the warrant of arrest as well as the search warrant.  I stood there watching my brother being handcuffed and the police searching his whole flat for any evidence that he might be a terrorist or communist.  They could find nothing other than two books written by Breyten Breytenbach.  When these books were returned eventually, a note on it said that he could have been a communist like Breyten Breytenbach.  It is today common knowledge that this was far from the factual situation pertaining to Breyten Breytenbach.  However, after all charges were withdrawn against Adam Klein, the security police of those days kept a close surveillance of him upon his release.

Adam Klein moved on to start his articles as an attorney but wasn’t successful as the attorneys who employed him were frightened whenever his cases were mentioned.  Eventually Adam Klein fled to the then South West Africa (today Namibia).  He practised there for a few years and later returned to South Africa. Upon his return he was again interrogated by the security police, who were desperate to link him to other underground activities.

Adam Klein became a practising advocate in Mpumalanga and joined the Independent Association of Advocates of South Africa (IAASA).  The Independent Bar elected Adam Klein a life-long honory member of the association.

Adam Klein suffered a severe heart attack and on 2 July 2011 he passed away.  During 2012 the NBCSA applied to the President for the conferral of the Order of Luthuli posthumously on Adam Klein.  The decision on this application is still pending.