Remembering Mandela: a friend to George Bizos

I have been interning at the Legal Resources Centre this week and was asked if I would like to speak to George Bizos about his thoughts on the anniversary of Mandela’s death.

In the elevator I read over the insights that I have scribbled down to guide my conversation with George Bizos – “Mandela” (great start), “Leader”, “Icon”, “Freedom”- when it dawns on me that, while Mandela undoubtedly represents all of these things, to the man with whom I am about to speak, Mandela was much, much more. To George Bizos, Mandela was a friend.

I begin to think about what it would be like, what it would feel like, to lose a friend. I think about what I would remember. Perhaps how we had first met, how we had come to be friends, what parts of that person would still feel so immediate even after they had gone.

And so, in his office, I ask the great advocate how he and Mandela came to be friends. He begins by telling me that the two men met at university at a student rally.  At the time the government had criticized certain “leftist” students for their political activities. Apparently it was the belief that these students would soon temper their wild ways under the good influence of the other students who were of “sound sensibilities”. However, in his speech at a student rally Bizos, then in his first year, stated emphatically that,

“If wanting blacks at university to be treated equally irrespective of colour makes me a leftist, then I am proud to be one”.

After the rally Mandela approached Bizos and introduced himself. The two spoke about their political convictions and found common ground, having both grown up in rural areas (Mandela in the Eastern Cape and Bizos in rural Greece).

My concern however, was not with when they had become friends, but with how. How had two men separated by stringent laws prohibiting their interaction come to share a friendship that would span almost 65 years? The answer, it would seem, was simple.

“You know, friendships grow sometimes because of the things you can’t do together”, he said offering his hand to me with raised eyebrows, in the way that older men seem to do when something is apparently fairly obvious.

In George Bizos' office is this photo of him and Nelson Mandela
This photo of George Bizos and Nelson Mandela sits proudly in Bizos’ office

Bizos tells me about when he and Mandela would work on cases together, long before the days of the Rivonia trial, when the two men were young legal practitioners at the very start of their respective careers. They could not eat lunch on the same bench or in the courthouse together. Instead, Bizos would be sent to buy fish and chips, as it was understood that as a white man he would receive better, faster service and at the end of the day they were hungry. He tells me this with the grin of a young man reveling in the memories of his defiance. He and Mandela would then eat their lunch in his small weather-beaten Morris Minor, speaking about the concept of liberty, their futures and South Africa, as the smell of vinegar and battered fish engulfed the two friends.

Hanging on George Bizos' wall is this picture of the Treason Trial
Hanging on George Bizos’ wall is this picture of the Treason Trial

He told me a story about when he went to visit Mandela in prison. Bizos was waiting in the visiting room when Mandela was brought in by eight wardens. The two men embraced and Mandela turned to Bizos and said, “I have not been here very long but it seems I have already forgotten my manners, I have not yet introduced you to my royal guard”. Mandela proceeded to introduce George Bizos to every one of the guards, in Afrikaans.

When I asked Bizos what he missed the most about Mandela, Bizos said “his sense of humour”, but mostly because Mandela never thought himself a funny man. Bizos ended off our conversation by saying that people would often tell him that his advice to Mandela during the Rivonia trial saved Mandela’s life. But what Bizos believes saved his life was his popularity, his steadfastness and the fact that he was viewed by young people as a leader that could be trusted.

To the world, today marks the loss of an icon, a leader of men, the father of our country. But to George Bizos, today marks the loss of something far greater – the loss of a friend.

I believe that when we celebrate today to honour the life of Nelson Mandela, we celebrate not only the life of an icon but also that of a man; a great man whose life was punctuated by a friendship that meant so much to two people.

By Caitlin Bruce

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Realising Rights bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Legal Resources Centre. The Legal Resources Centre is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the bloggers.

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The Legal Resources Centre is a public interest law clinic established in South Africa in 1979

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