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Inbox Mandela and me: an enduring friendship Nelson Mandela and George Bizos became friends at university, despite apartheid laws making it difficult for them to spend time together. Bizos went on to be one of the defence advocates during Mandela’s trial, with the two meeting regularly until the end of the former President’s life George Bizos It was 65 years of a fulfilling friendship, but it was the things that Nelson Mandela and I could not do together that cemented our relationship far more than the things that we could. We met in 1948, ironically the year of the dawn of apartheid. We were reading law at the University of the Witwatersrand, where the unbearable logic of the National Party invaded our lives in the most unthinkable ways. Though we could occupy the same desk in the lecture theatre, we could not swim together in the pool. We could not sit next to one another at rugby matches. Because of the colour of his skin, Mandela could not join the soccer team and he was barred from entering the gym to work out in the boxing ring – his favourite sport of all. Of course, the inhumanity of apartheid put a halt to much more than jolling and sports, but as two young friends of different colour we generally could not be seen together in the regular walkways of life. When he began practising law in 1951 and I joined the bar three years later, we worked on numerous cases together, yet we could not enjoy a cup of tea or a meal with one another at any of the eateries in the vicinity of the courts. Not even a bench in a public park would tolerate the presence of a black man in the company of a white. The other side of apartheid’s coin meant that a white person could not travel to the townships without seeking a permit, which was invariably declined. Each 18 July, Mandela’s birthday, was a day of immense importance to him, his family and friends and it was one they celebrated with joyful abandon at his home in Vilakazi Street, though it was difficult, if not impossible, for me and many of his friends of paler skin to join him in Soweto during those early years. When Mandela and nine other members of the then-outlawed African National Congress (ANC) were tried in the early 1960s for attempting to overthrow the apartheid regime, I was one of their defending advocates. I recall the April morning of 1964, when Mandela was due to deliver his now famous speech in the dock and we read over what he had penned. He had wanted to say that he was prepared to die for a free and democratic SA. “Don’t you think you will be accused of martyrdom?” I asked him. “And won’t there be some people who might consider your words a challenge? You ought to remove those words.” “I’ve said it too often from public platforms and I’m not prepared to remove it now,” he insisted. Though we could occupy the same desk in the lecture theatre, we could not swim together in the pool. We could not sit next to one another at rugby matches “What about a compromise,” I suggested after a short discussion. “What about, ‘But if needs be, My Lord, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’.” Two months later, he was handed a life sentence and, as harsh as that was, in our hearts it felt like a victory as we had feared he would have been sentenced to death. But typically, he always found a way to cast light on those dark years and I recall, years later, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and asked me to travel with him to collect it and introduced me to the King of Norway. “This is George Bizos, my lawyer,” he said. “I don’t know why I brought him with me. He sent me to prison – for 27 years.” When he was imprisoned on Robben Island, Mandela nominated me as the lawyer who would visit him and I had to apply for permission to travel to that barren stretch of land off the Cape and had to present pressing reasons to take me there, to convey or relay some critical information. To her credit, his then wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was very inventive. She would say: “I can’t decide what school the children should go to. Or what subjects they must study. As their father, you must decide.” And I would be dispatched to hear what Mandela would have to say on the subject, but use our time to discuss our core business: freedom. After his release in 1990, his path to the presidency of South Africa lay ahead of him and he left no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was the man truly capable of bridging the abyss that defined South Africa. The one-time life prisoner excelled as head of the state and he worked his Madiba magic in countless ways. Sadly, his personal life was marred by various tribulations. In 1991, he asked me to defend Madikizela-Mandela in the kidnapping trial, despite the fact that their marriage had crumbled by then. Five years later, he asked me to accompany him to court as he endured their very public divorce. Happier moments were to follow, though, and a year or so later I recall a rather bashful 80-something Mandela telling me about Graça Machel and the chapter in his life that had just opened. They were living together by then and he was 4 l www.global -br ief ing.org f i rst quar ter 2014 global


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