Eventually, the defender became suspect.
"An enemy of the state," says Shun Chetty, biting the words with disdain as he sits in a borrowed office here.
For five years he was one of South Africa's best-known attorneys. At 37, he was a man of international prominence who had defended scores of black activists charged with crimes against the state.
His most celebrated case was the Steve Biko inquest. Biko, a young black leader, became the symbol of the brutal side of South Africa's apartheid policy when he died under mysterious circumstances in 1977 while in police custody. His death drew world attention to South Africa's racial practices and because of that, in Chetty's view, was one of the most important political events to occur there in 20 years.
Three months ago Chetty escaped to Botswana and political asylum, fearing that South African Security police were preparing to arrest him. He had aided, financially and philosophically, a number of young dissidents who had escaped in recent years.
"More and more I was being placed in a position of offering advice and assistance as a person, not as a lawyer," he says. "I had to make a value judgement in my life as to where I stood."
From Botswana, Chetty and his wife, Fazila, flew to London. In October, the United Nations Commission on Apartheid brought him to New York to deliver a paper on apartheid. Under the auspices of the Southern African Project of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, he has been meeting legal and academic groups to discuss human rights and the legal system in South Africa. And he has been in and out of Washington.
He was impressed that Reps. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) and Paul (Pete) McCloskey (R-Calif.) showed up recently at a reception for him on Capitol Hill.
"I don't rub shoulders with parliamentarians in my country," he told them.
He had been meeting with other officials whom he first met in South Africa. One is former U.S. ambassador William Bowdler, who led the American deputation to the Biko funeral. It was a gesture of U.S. government concern over the fact the Biko had been the 21st non-white to die in detention over an 18-month period. Since Biko's death there have been but two detention deaths. It shows, says Chetty, what international outcry can do to save lives.
Chetty's thoughts about escaping came one day last May when he and his wife were walking in a pine forest. He remembers that the outing was almost spiritual in tone, that only the sunlight intruded.
"One was sort of cocooned from the desperate situation," he says. "The whole atmosphere induced a sense of introspection."
For three years, ever since the South African government had taken away his passport, preventing him from accepting a U.S. State Department invitation to visit here, Chetty was under police surveillance.
As his law practice flourished, he says, so had his vulnerability to official harassment. About 85 percent of his cases were those of black South Africans he was defending who were accused of terrorism, sabotage, sedition or other political crimes.
Authorities had been chipping away at his determination.He held them responsible for intimidating his clients, abusing his wife in anonymous telephone calls, ransacking his home, stealing his office files and wrecking his car. They tried his clients in secret and curtailed the activities of two trainees on his staff through the despised government practice called "banning," he says.
"People who defend dissidents are in turn suspected of being dissidents," he says.
Part of the attempt to discredit him, he explains, was a newspaper article linking him romantically with then - U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Sally Shelton, now ambassador to Barbados. (Chetty says the reporter who wrote the story admitted recently on British television that he had been a member of South Africa's security police. The story appeared in the government-run newspaper Citizen.)
There were other stories about Chetty. One implied a connection with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Others raised questions about income tax evasion, his professional ethics, and use of money raised abroad to help pay the legal fees of blacks accused of political crimes.
So walking that day in the forest, Chetty was going back through his life trying to figure out where he fit into the political spectrum. He says he was coming to the realization that he couldn't continue the work he was doing, couldn't be effective any longer.
"More and more I found myself being pushed across the threshold from professional objectivity to identification with a cause."
He seemed to be headed in the direction of taking part in armed revolution, he says, though he did not see himself as a guerrilla.
"Oh, yes, it's coming to that," he insists softly.
Without any acceptable means to seek "peaceful, meaningful change," Chetty says his options seemed clear: become involved in the armed struggle to liberate black people, surrender to separate development policies, or flee South Africa altogether.
Chetty is of Indian descent, but his roots in South Africa go back four generations on his mother's side. His paternal grandfather emigrated from India as a sugar cane cutter and eventually owned 5,000 acres of sugar cane. "I love South Africa," Chetty says.
But he had begun to feel "a kind of hopelessness and despair as the last bit of salvation you have in life, that last bit of continued reason for living in South Africa was being taken away."
And Fazila Chetty, 35, a pediatrician on the staff of the Johannesburg public health service, a woman with roots in South Africa similar to those of her husband, where did she fit into it all?
"Obviously her career mattered," Chetty says, a curtness edging his voice. "But it wasn't a case of buying a new bathtub. Fazila had to decide if she wanted to stay married to me."
Though Chetty's decision didn't come easily, he says it did come swiftly. He told Fazila that day in the forest that he was leaving the country "just like that."
Except it couldn't be just like that. He was in the middle of the Biko family's civil suit against the government seeking $100,000 in damages.
Chetty, who had studied in Ireland but earned his law degree at University College Durban in Natal, South Africa, across town from the medical school where Steve Biko was a student, knew Biko and often had long talks with him and his colleagues in the Black Consciousness movement.
"We had the same basic ideas, talking the same basic language though we argued at times about which was the best way to win freedom for blacks."
Chetty was one of South Africa's 200 non-white lawyers. (White lawyers number 5,000 although there are 21 million blacks and 4 million whites in the country.) By 1976 he was involved in the South Africa Students Organization (SASO) terrorism trial of 14 leaders of the Black Consciousness movement. A year later came Biko's death and the inquest.
At the inquest, death had been ruled the result of head injuries suffered during a struggle with prison police. The state accepted the responsibility.
"The Bikos weren't after the money," says Chetty. "Although we were satisfied personally that the police murdered Steve, the family wanted to prove it in court."
Chetty decided that since he could not leave South Africa immediately, he would build his escape on "simple operandi." Except for his wife, who would accompany him, he would tell no one anything of his plans. Then he would flee while "in the middle of something." Right up to the end he would maintain normal professional and social appearances, keeping engagements and talking by telephone as if he did not know he was being taped and watched.
By late summer, after a couple of lesser proposals, the government upped its out-of-court settlement offer to almost $77,000, the highest of its kind on South African record. The Bikos accepted.
Ten days later, the night of Aug. 8, Chetty and his wife drove toward the Botswanan frontier. On the back seat of their car were a picnic basket and a few of Fazila's clothes. In her handbag were some travelers checks and a valid passport. Unlike her husband she was free to leave the country, but if police inquired she intended to tell them she was on her way to a medical conference.
Since he had no passport, Chetty could not cross the border in the conventional way. He took nothing of his own except the clothes he wore. Near the frontier he slipped out of the car -- "I knew how to go about these things" -- and slipped into Botswana on foot. A short while later, reunited with Fazila, he arrived at the residence of the British High Commissioner to request political asylum.
"Jolly good show," the British official told him. "Have a drink."
Soon after, he relates, the smear campaign against him began in South Africa and included such "impressions" as these:
That he used foreign money given to the South African Council of Churches, for guerrilla activities. ("I used a little of my own money, but any money any organization gave me was properly accounted for.")
That he left behind clients without legal representation. ("My assistant has all my files and took over my practice. She has since been banned.")
That he left because he needed money. ("I'm sitting here without a country, without a job, in the worst financial position in my life. I have to start from scratch because the British don't recognize my training. In South Africa I had one of the most successful private practices in the country. If I needed money why would I leave that?")
That he evaded income taxes. ("Even the authorities were embarrassed when I was able to prove that I'd never received a tax number, which is required there before you can pay your taxes.")
He says there was no connection between the timing of his Aug. 8 escape and the Aug. 9 hearing a regional law society had scheduled to continue its inquiry into his professional ethics.
Last spring the society called him before it on a charge of "touting," the illegal solication of clients. He believes that the real issues at stake were why his practice was so heavily loaded with political dissidents and what the British and Americans were really trying to do by sending money to South Africa for legal assistance.
Chetty feels his answers never quite satisfied his inquisitors, that "they thought I had aligned myself with the political objectives of my clients."
He sees his future role in his self-imposed exile as one of "sensitizing international organization, agencies and governments to the day-to-day situation in South Africa. The position I was in five years gives me a particular insight into the nature and quality of the struggle there. When you've seen people in prison as I have you can sensitize at a very real level."
So Chetty has been seeing everybody he can. Sometimes the experience is startling.
"A friend tells me 'you've got to see so-and-so' and when I hear this I always think of a white guy. In my country you see a white guy in your mind's eye. But here, I go and see so-and-so and it's a black guy. Really, it's quite a thing. You do a double take."