Joel Joffe: a tribute to an International Alert trustee

Joel Joffe served as a trustee on the board of International Alert from June 1994 until May 2000. Former colleague, senior policy adviser Ed Garcia, remembers his courage, generosity and sense of humour, and looks back on some of his many contributions.

The tributes to Joel Joffe have continued to pour in since his death on 18 June, because he was so involved in so many different struggles for social justice.

Among his many achievements, was serving as a trustee of International Alert. An iconic human rights lawyer whom the late Nelson Mandela called “the general behind the scenes in our defense” during the Rivonia Trials in the early sixties, Joel demonstrated the same principled, generous and self-effacing leadership in his stint at the peacebuilding organization.

Joel’s hands-on approach was accompanied by an immense capacity to listen and to engage in dialogue. He brought people together, and understood the meaning of diversity and the dignity of difference. This was perhaps due to his varied life experience before he had to leave South Africa for Britain. Born in South Africa in 1932, the son of a Palestinian-born mother and a father from Lithuania, he grew up in a Jewish household, studied in a boarding school run by Marist Brothers, and worked as a lawyer in a country that had suffered under apartheid. 

At Alert, Joel demonstrated his courageous approach to difficult and “forgotten” conflict situations by supporting work to help address the violent conflicts in Sierra Leone, to undertake peace initiatives in Liberia, and to assist in breaking ground for peace in “hinterland” conflict zones such as Burundi.   

He brought with him the same courage he showed when he took risks in his defense of Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid. He always prepared carefully and deliberately, and demanded rigorous analysis and critique of Alert’s impact on the ground, which resulted in better ways to improve lives and to explore more inclusive and peaceful options.

Joel was a friend to many. He exhibited an immense generosity without thought of return, a disarming humility that hid behind his serious demeanor, and a sense of humour that included a capacity to laugh at himself.

At Alert, he will be remembered as someone who showed his colleagues the primacy of principles, the meaning of courage in the struggle to build peace, and the importance of working effectively with others to make a difference in the lives of the more vulnerable. 

Joel lived a long and remarkable life; his was a memorable journey. He was a critical part of Alert’s history, bringing the wisdom acquired from his life’s experience to his work here. We were fortunate to have had Joel among us, and will always be grateful.