An enduring friendship with Nelson Mandela

‘I wish for him a shield to protect him’: human rights lawyer George Bizos on his long-time friend

It has been 65 years of a fulfilling friendship but it was the things that Nelson 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 Witwaters- rand, in Johannesburg, where the unbearable logic of the National Party invaded our lives in the most unthinkable ways.

Although we could occupy the same desk in the lecture theatre, we couldn’t swim together in the swimming pool. We couldn’t sit next to one another at the rugby matches. Indeed, when Wits played the University of Pretoria, the despicable pass laws prevented Nelson and his fellow black students from travelling the 60 or so kilometres to the neighbouring city.

Because of the colour of his skin, Nelson 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 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 couldn’t enjoy a cup of tea or a meal together 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.

Hence, July 18th, Nelson’s birthday, was a day of immense importance to him, his family and friends. It was one they celebrated with joyful abandon at his home in Vilikazi Street, although 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.

It is not by choice but by circumstance that we are separated again for this birthday, but rather than dwell on his poor health, I want to recall our good times together and the milestones we have shared in both our lifetimes.

When Nelson and nine other members of the then outlawed African National Congress 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 he was due to deliver his now infamous 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 South Africa.

“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.

“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’?”

wo months later he was handed a life sentence and, harsh as that was, in our hearts it felt like a victory as we had feared he would have been sentenced to death.

Typical of the man, though, he always found a way to cast light on those dark years; I recall years later when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Price 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, Nelson nominated me as the lawyer who would visit him. I had to apply for permission to travel to that barren stretch of land off the Cape and had to present pressing or necessary reasons to take me there, in order 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 Nelson 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 then.

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 Winnie in the kidnap 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 Nelson telling me about Graca and the chapter in his life that had just opened. The pair were living together by then and he was more content that I had seen him in a long time.

But Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu thought their cohabitation was unbecoming of an icon and called on his friend to marry Graca, so they wed in a quiet ceremony in 1998.

High on Graca's agenda was the unity of the various Mandela families and in the years that followed, she forged a peace between the children and grandchildren, from his first marriage to Evelyn Mase and his second marriage to Winnie.

I recall many happy birthday celebrations that followed when Nelson would take rightful place at the head of the table, surrounded by the family he had always wanted to nourish, but which life had prevented him from doing.

If he were in better health, I imagine Nelson would be heavily disappointed by the current family disputes that are playing out for the world to see. He did not expect any privilege for himself and I know he would appeal to them now to follow his example. The matter of his final resting place is also beyond dispute and is a decision he made a long, long time ago.

I was reminded of that fact in January of this year, not long after he was released from hospital, when I went to visit him at his Houghton home. As soon as I entered the living room, he called out to the staff: “Get me my boots.”

“What do you want your boots for, Tata?” one of them asked.

“George is here. He will take me to Qunu,” he answered.

It was clear that he wanted to go home.

Qunu is a place that is very near and dear to Madiba’s heart. It is where he has enjoyed his retirement, where his contemporaries knocked on his door uninvited and unannounced, something he greatly enjoyed.

It is also there, in the kraal, where he chose his final resting place, in consultation with Graca, something he has talked about many times and always in practical tones.

Nelson doesn't fear death. He once said that when he eventually departs, he would look for the nearest ANC branch in heaven and join it. And he has often said – in jest – that when he dies, he will be in the good company of Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Chief Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo.

I last saw Nelson at his Houghton home a week or so before he was admitted to hospital last month and we strolled down memory lane, as we often do. But he asked some questions that saddened me.

“When did you last see Oliver [Tambo]?” he wanted to know. “How’s Walter [Sisulu]?”

I couldn’t lie to him and so I reminded him that they had passed on many years ago. I recall a blank expression sweeping over his face for a moment or so, before the conversation got back on track.

As I was saying goodbye, he turned to me and said, “George, make sure that you don’t leave your jacket behind.”

As it turned out, I had left it in the car, but Nelson’s words touched me. He was being thoughtful and wanted me to shield myself from the winter chill that had crept into this part of the world.

Today, on his 95th birthday, I also wish for him a shield to protect him as he finds his way back to good health.

I have said to him on many birthday occasions in the past, here’s to your 100th birthday. “You are optimistic,” he would laugh in response.

I sincerely hope not, my friend.