Advocate Michael Donen SQ… an unsung hero of the liberation struggle

Law Students Advocate

The case of a naïve young Jewish lawyer who shaped the ANC’s status from terrorist organisation to liberation struggle. Anti-Apartheid Lawyer, Advocate Michael Donen SC, honoured in Parliament.


Advocate Michael Donen SQ is a humble man who worked tirelessly in the times of the apartheid struggle but who has gone largely unnoticed in our history.

The Advocate is an unsung hero of the liberation struggle. He has served on the SABJD Cape Council for over a decade and has been a practising member of the Cape Bar for over thirty years. His legal career is one that exemplifies the very best of intellectually robust impartiality and faithfulness to the South African Constitution; defending political activists during the height of apartheid in pioneering cases that put him at security risk and even saw members of the community ostracize him for doing so.

As a young lawyer struggling to pay off his debt, Donen worked as a junior prosecutor on the treason trial of ANC leader Tokyo Sexwale in the late 1970’s. This was a turning point in his career and he describes it as having a seminal impact on the rest of his life.

He says “I soon realised I was on the wrong side and after chatting to Sexwale, decided to leave the country, study human rights law further in the UK and then returned to the country to exclusively represent the United Democratic Front.”

On the 9 November 2017, Michael Bagraim MP, passed a motion without notice in Parliament that Adv. Michael Donen’s remarkable career be recognized for the contribution he has made to the history of South Africa. Bagraim notes “It took a great deal of bravery and conviction to defend anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s, at a time when Mandela, Trevor Manuel and others were regarded as ‘terrorists’ by the state.

Passing this motion in Parliament is an acknowledgment of the enormous impact Michael Donen had on the liberation struggle by defending activists who fell foul to the apartheid system. Because, like many of the lawyers who defended and protected political activists, his remarkable career has gone largely unnoticed by most South Africans.”

Donen highlights the following cases as human rights lawyer during the apartheid:

  • Represented inter alia Tony and Lumka Yengeni, Jenny Schreiner and Gary Kruser at their treason trial in 1989/90 together with the former Chief Justice Pius Langa.
  • Represented the late Johnny Issel, one of the founding members of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Zubeida Jaffe, now an award-winning South African journalist and author, pursuant to their detentions without trial in the 1980’s.
  • Represented Ashley Forbes, Major Generals Jeremy Veary and Peter Jacobs, Anwa Dramat (former head of the Hawks) at their terrorism trial, assisted by Johnny De Lange (1998) who later became the Deputy Minister of Justice.
  • Represented many other persons detained without trial, for example Janet Cherry, instructed by Vanessa Brereton who turned out to be working for the security police.

One of his most notable cases was that of Major-General Mxolisi Petane in 1988. Petane was arrested for terrorism against the Apartheid government and his defence claim that he was a prisoner-of-war, set a historic precedent in the country. With the world’s media taking notice, through Donen’s brave defence, Petane had claimed a tremendous political victory for the ANC in court, gaining recognition as a liberation struggle rather than a terrorist organisation.

Petane was saved from the death sentence due to this defence and went on to serve the South African National Defence Force as an inspector general, in later years. It must be noted that this case made legal history and is studied in international law faculties around the world to this day. Josh Hovsha, Director of the SABJD Cape, confers “As a LLM student at Trinity College in Dublin, we studied this particular case with great interest, so it has been incredible to have conversations with Michael Donen about his preparation for this case and gain from his personal insight.”

Donen humbly reflects, “During the time of the struggle, I was lawyer to those detained but also worked generally to assist where I could, I manned an advice office in Mbekweni township in Paarl for instance. I was even instructed to go to Pollsmoor where Trevor Manuel was held without trial, ‘just to hug him’. There were secret meetings in the middle of the night with the likes of Trevor Manuel and Ebrahim Rasool who would give me political direction for the terrorism and treason trials. I enjoyed these creative aspects of my human rights work!”

Seeking to change the status quo of our country during a time where there was little political thaw in sight, Advocate Michael Donen played a vital part as human rights lawyer in these cases that ultimately led to radically changing the lives of the most vulnerable in our country. He did not what was easy but what was right.


Sources: GTG interview
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Brent Lindeque is the founder and man in charge at Good Things Guy. Recognised as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South African’s as well as a Primedia LeadSA Hero, Brent is a change maker, thought leader, radio host, foodie, vlogger, writer and all round good guy.

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