Mandela and Bizos: redefining 'bromance'

Editor's Note: This article was published in the Sunday Times on October 22 2017

22 October 2017 - 00:00 By sue de groot
Two days after his release, Nelson Mandela hugs George Bizos at a rally in Soweto, with Cyril Ramaphosa looking on.
Two days after his release, Nelson Mandela hugs George Bizos at a rally in Soweto, with Cyril Ramaphosa looking on.
Image: Supplied

After inquiring after his own family and each of the other lawyers, Nelson said, "Unqaphele?" - a Xhosa term for respected persons - and by gesture (lowering his hand to indicate a short person) asked after Bram. Bram and Joel had visited Nelson and our other clients a week after their conviction. On that occasion, when Nelson had asked after Bram's wife, Molly Krige, Bram had wordlessly left the table to compose himself before continuing with the consultation: she had died in a freak car accident in the middle of the Free State the day after the Rivonia Trial ended. Bram had been driving and blamed himself. News of her death had since reached the prisoners, and Nelson kept his steady gaze on me, only relaxing when I gave him a thumbs-up.

Oh those lovebirds! ...If Madiba was not in a good mood and the phone rang and he cheered up, then I knew it must be George on line" - Graça Machel

Many great men come from humble origins, and extraordinary friendships are often born in unremarkable places. George Bizos met the mythical figure now known as Madiba - to Bizos always just a man named Nelson - at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1948.

When the government announced plans to limit the number of black medical students at "open" universities, Bizos the below-radar refugee stood up at a mass meeting and proposed that all students go on strike should this unholy quota system be implemented.

"And so it was," writes Bizos in his new book, 65 Years of Friendship, "that a few days later, Nelson Mandela strode up to me on the steps of the Great Hall, smiling his wonderful smile."

Bizos did not expect Mandela, already a political figure of some standing, to be interested in a first-year student nine years his junior, "but Nelson was already possessed of that genuine interest in other people that so defined him. He wanted to know about me and how it was that I was prepared to make a public statement of that nature."

Bizos told Mandela the story of how he and his father were rescued by an Allied warship after escaping from Nazi-occupied Greece in a rowing boat with seven stranded New Zealand soldiers who Bizos snr had promised to take to safety.

In Egypt, father and son were separated into a refugee camp and an orphanage until granted passage to a new life in South Africa.

Appalled by racism of any kind, for years Bizos was haunted by the "rickshaw boys" he saw on arrival in Durban in 1941. They were "being treated like animals doing the work of beasts of burden", he writes.

As an immigrant, he encountered his own share of prejudice. Their train was diverted on its way from Durban to Johannesburg, "to avoid the crowds of white demonstrators protesting against Prime Minister Smuts allowing the vuilgoed (rubbish) of Europe into the country". Bizos recalls his Afrikaans high school teacher seeing pictures of emaciated Greek children during the war and asking young Bizos if he was "eating other people's food".


Bizos told Mandela that he, too, hoped to become a lawyer. Two years later his part-time job required him to file documents in the magistrate's court, where he would frequently meet Mandela, then working for a Johannesburg law firm. Their friendship deepened, although "there were few places in the city that we were permitted to sit side-by-side, even less where we could share a meal. Unable to ride the tram together, we would occasionally take a walk."

Bizos graduated with a law degree in 1953 but could not register as an articled clerk because he was not a South African citizen. His only option was to join the bar as an advocate, but, he writes, "it was not clear whether a Greek national could take an oath of allegiance to the queen ... Joe [Slovo] was happy to represent me in court, however, he cautioned: 'It might not be entirely strategic for a stateless, Lithuanian Jew, and a communist at that, to submit before a Waspish judge that there is nothing equivocal about a Greek refugee taking an oath of allegiance to her majesty the queen.'"

Fortunately the judges were "Afrikaner nationalists who likely believed that if they could take an oath of allegiance to the queen then anyone could". A young Johann Kriegler was the clerk who administered Bizos's oath. "I was admitted in 1954 and almost immediately started receiving briefs from the law firm of Mandela and Tambo."

Case by case, Bizos paints South Africa's shifting legal and political shadowscape in vivid colour. "When I was not fighting for the right of the lawyers at Mandela and Tambo to discharge their professional responsibilities, I was kept busy with their clients."

Through this runs the ever-strengthening thread of his friendship with Mandela. One of the few places where they could relax was Little Swallow in Commissioner Street, across the road from police headquarters: "Its Cantonese owners turned a blind eye to our breach of the law prohibiting blacks and whites from eating together. The policemen who wandered in extended us the same courtesy." Here they would debate the writings of ancient philosophers and muse on the lessons of history: "Civil war was a matter that concerned both Nelson and me ... Some commentators have claimed that Nelson's commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation was something that he mellowed into in prison, but that is not my understanding. From the very early days of our acquaintance, he was clear that black racism in retaliation for white racism would tear South Africa apart."


The years 1956 to 1961 were dominated by the Treason Trial. Mandela was now a client as well as friend and colleague. In 1963 he was sent to Robben Island for five years, which became life imprisonment after the Rivonia Trial in 1964. With a finely recalled wealth of personal and professional detail, Bizos brings these turbulent times to life.

As Mandela's lawyer, he was a frequent visitor to Robben Island, but much was happening outside the prison. And then came 1990, when "a free Nelson Mandela flung his arms around me in a tight embrace".

There was more pain and joy to come. Bizos was at Mandela's side through the breakdown of his marriage to Winnie: "I had only ever seen him wear so grave an expression once before: twenty-eight years earlier as he waited to hear if he and his comrades had been condemned to death."

He was also present at the Nobel prize dinner where the uneasy accord with FW de Klerk fell apart: "The one and only occasion that I would ever see Nelson lose control."

Bizos oversaw the creation of South Africa's constitution and was heavily involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Between these duties he rejoiced when his friend found love again: "Nelson's marriage to Graça was a very happy one ... Graça paid special attention to Nelson's friends and we were always warmly welcomed into their home."

In 2002 the friends and their wives took a holiday together, to Greece. "We spent our days at the shaded garden tables edging the powdery sea sand of the Aegean."

This was the beginning of the end, however. As Mandela's health faded, Bizos visited frequently. "Sometimes our conversations would turn to death and what the mutual friends we had discovered at the Little Swallow [Plato, Socrates and Co] had to say on the subject."

The last words Nelson spoke to his friend, on a warm day in 2013, were "George, don't leave your jacket behind!"

Charles Darwin said that a man's friendships are a measure of his worth. Measured against the implacable loyalty and selfless love these two men gave each other for 65 years, both are giants.



Anyone observing the jaunty squadron as it approached the quayside consulting room where I waited would be forgiven for assuming that the tall man in the centre was in charge. He was certainly setting the brisk pace at which the formation of nine - two in front, two behind and two on either side of him - advanced. It was only on closer inspection that his midwinter attire of khaki shorts and sandals exposed him as a convicted prisoner under guard.

I stepped off the veranda of the quayside visitors' block and went forward to embrace him. It was a few months after the Rivonia Trial and my first visit since his imprisonment. We hugged. "How is Zami?" he asked, using his nickname for Winnie. Before I could answer, he pulled back and apologised, saying, "George, I am sorry. I haven't been here in prison for long, but I seem to have already lost my manners and become a brute. I have not introduced you to my Guard of Honour." And, with cheerful authority, he introduced each warder to me by rank and name.

65 Years of Friendship by George Bizos. (Umuzi, R290)
65 Years of Friendship by George Bizos. (Umuzi, R290)
Image: Supplied

It was my first time on the island. The Cape of Storms was well named by the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias and I was still queasy from the sea crossing from Cape Town. The consulting room where we met was tiny and cheerless, and we sat, cramped and cold, as changing shifts of warders peered in at us through the glass panel at the top of the door.

We assumed that our conversations were bugged, and fell back into the unspoken language of our trial preparations. My years of living in a country where I could not speak the language had served me well. I was well practised in the art of communication by means of facial expressions and hand gestures, and our consultations soon had an easy rhythm. Nelson would take my lawyer's pad and write down a name, an event or an organisation. I would respond with a thumbs-up, a nod or, too often, a sad shake of the head.

From the start, Nelson had no interest in talking about himself. He had the long-term prisoner's thirst for news of the outside. "Everything is fine, George, we are all settling in well," he said, waving his hand almost dismissively. I never knew him to complain. "Tell me, what has been the reaction to our conviction?" I conveyed the massive international outcry and media coverage with a few words and an enthusiastic thumbs-up, drawing a quick and wide smile from Nelson in response.

This first consultation determined the rules of engagement for our future meetings over many years. It would change only towards the end of his stay on the island, when the warders would leave us alone and we could talk more freely. If there was ever any input or feedback that I needed from Nelson (even just a broad indication of his attitude), usually for reports to Winnie or the clients that I defended, he would always ask me to wait until after lunch. I knew this meant he wished to consult with Walter Sisulu.

From that first occasion, Nelson and I were separated for lunch. He returned to his cell for mealie-meal porridge, while I was escorted under guard for what would be my first of many liver hamburgers, the signature dish at the warders' canteen. They came with potatoes and pumpkin, which I could never finish, served by "coloured" common-law prisoners. I ate alone at a table for four in the steely echo of the large canteen.

Our afternoon was more relaxed. I told Nelson that Hilda and Rusty Bernstein had escaped the country to Botswana, and gave my news of Denis Goldberg who, as the sole white prisoner, was kept apart from his comrades in Pretoria Central Prison. We ended the consultation with a discussion of the progress of the newly independent African countries of Zambia, Tanzania and Algeria.

It was clear from that first consultation that Nelson was realistic about what he confronted. Unlike others over the years who sustained themselves with the belief that they would be back home with their families within a few years, he knew that he faced a long imprisonment.

It was also clear that Nelson was no ordinary prisoner. From that very first visit I was struck by how respectfully yet firmly he insisted that his interactions with his jailers were conducted on a basis that affirmed their common humanity. Quite soon after his arrival, many of the warders would be asking him for advice on their marital problems or for his recommendations on what they should study for promotion purposes.

As we said goodbye, Nelson reminded me of my responsibilities to him and the other prisoners. Their families would need support, there would be more arrests and future accused would require legal representation. I needed to be there. "Stay out of trouble and look after my family," he instructed.