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It is the twenty-second year of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment and a country is gripped with civil unrest. In the small, conservative town of Upington, in South Africa’s Northern Cape, a black policeman is beaten to death and his body burned during a riot. Twenty-five black citizens, from teenage boys to an elderly couple, are all accused of the same crime: the murder of Lucas Sethwala, with a common purpose. After a two-year trial, the ‘Upington 25’ are convicted of his murder; and a year later, fourteen of them are sentenced to death.
Andrea Durbach and the other members of the legal team took on the case after the twenty-five were convicted of murder. Their challenge was to persuade the Upington Supreme Court not to impose mandatory death sentences – without having been lawyers to the accused during the initial trial. They had only a matter of weeks to sort through thousands of court documents, to get to know each of the accused and, after the death sentences had been handed down, to mount an effective appeal.
'A Common Purpose' tells the remarkable story of the accused, and also the story of the young white woman who became their lawyer. It tells of a country undergoing vast change and the painful process of reconciliation with a savage past. It unravels a trial of personal and political complexity that ends in the assassination of one of the defense lawyers and the eventual exile of another to Australia. And it conveys the horror and inhumanity of life on Death Row.