From Sharpeville to Marikana Massacre - a Lawyer's Odyssey; A Newcastle-Born Human Rights Lawyer Is at the Centre of an Inquiry into a Bloody Massacre in South Africa, an Event That Reminds Him of His Teenage Years on Tyneside. MIKE KELLY Spoke to Him

The Journal (Newcastle, England), April 12, 2014 | Go to article overview

From Sharpeville to Marikana Massacre - a Lawyer's Odyssey; A Newcastle-Born Human Rights Lawyer Is at the Centre of an Inquiry into a Bloody Massacre in South Africa, an Event That Reminds Him of His Teenage Years on Tyneside. MIKE KELLY Spoke to Him


Byline: MIKE KELLY

THE received wisdom in North East newspaper circles is that wherever there is a national or international incident, you'll find someone from this region caught up in the middle of it.

From 9/11 to Mexican earthquakes, up someone pops, like the character in the Woody Allen film Zelig, always appearing where history is made.

However, even in the usual scale of omnipresence, lawyer James Nichol's story stands out.

As we speak he is representing the families of 34 mineworkers who were shot dead in Marikana, South Africa, last August.

He is working pro bono - for free - in order to secure justice at what amounted to state sponsored murder at the Lonmin platinum mine, an event which shocked the world.

It was doubly shocking for Newcastle-born James, a well respected human rights lawyer, now based in London.

The Marikana incident was the single most lethal use of force by South African security forces against civilians since the 1960 Sharpeville massacre during the apartheid era And it was back on Tyneside aged 15 that James - known as Jimmy back then to his friends - took part in his first ever street protest in response to the Sharpeville killings. In it police gunned down 69 people from the South African township who had been protesting against the 'pass laws', a form of internal passport system designed to maintain the segregation of blacks and whites in the hated Apartheid regime.

In 1960 Newcastle, Jimmy and his friend John Creadie were among around 20 protesters who took to the streets carrying placards.

"We marched in single file as there wasn't really enough of us to form a demonstration," he said.

While the great Geordie public appear to have been unmoved at that time by the protest, it fostered in Jimmy a lifelong loathing of Apartheid which saw him take part in many more significant protests in the years to come.

"I was at Twickenham when they wrecked the rugby," he said.

That was in 1969 when the touring Springboks, for so long a symbol of sporting strength of Apartheid South Africa until the team's remarkable transformation in 1995 to popular World Cup winners under the benign gaze of President Nelson Mandela, met huge protests.

Famously on that day at Twickenham, a protester got on the Springboks coach and drove off with half the team inside.

Fast forward 43 years and South Africa is a democracy run by a black government. Meanwhile Jimmy had become James the human rights lawyer inspired by his early Apartheid protest.

"It was in August 2012 when I switched on my TV and I saw a black Government with black police officers machine gunning to death black miners. I was completely gutted. There were lots of people who like me thought 'Oh God!'" "When you speak to people of my age group, people who did a little bit then, it's like a death in the family."

He was asked by someone he knew in South Africa to help the families of the victims.

He expected it to take two weeks but he's still there, heavily involved and it's turning into his last big case, perhaps one he has been working all his life to deal with.

He was born the son of a miner in North Walbottle.

His dad, Bryce, a miner since the age of 14 , died aged 40 from a dustrelated heart disease.

By then his mother, Kathleen, was already dead from tuberculosis, leaving Jimmy and three siblings as orphans.

Within weeks of his father's death, Nichol, 15, who had just left school, himself contracted TB.

He was taken to Stannington Children's Hospital, the first children's tuberculosis hospital in the country, where he eventually recovered after months of treatment . His interest in the law stemmed from his first job as a printer at a firm, one of whose contracts was with Private Eye, the satirical magazine which over the years has had numerous run-ins with the not-so-great and good. …

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From Sharpeville to Marikana Massacre - a Lawyer's Odyssey; A Newcastle-Born Human Rights Lawyer Is at the Centre of an Inquiry into a Bloody Massacre in South Africa, an Event That Reminds Him of His Teenage Years on Tyneside. MIKE KELLY Spoke to Him
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