Long walk to restore Mandela’s office

The Johannesburg building that once housed Nelson Mandela’s law firm is now a derelict squat. The BBC’s Andrew Harding finds that long-stalled plans to turn it into a centre for black lawyers say a lot about the pace of change in modern South Africa. George Bizos shuffles slowly across Fox Street, in the centre of Johannesburg.
L-R : Nelson Mandela’s former law offices ;Nelson Mandela as a lawyer
L-R : Nelson Mandela’s former law offices ;Nelson Mandela as a lawyer

The Johannesburg building that once housed Nelson Mandela’s law firm is now a derelict squat. The BBC’s Andrew Harding finds that long-stalled plans to turn it into a centre for black lawyers say a lot about the pace of change in modern South Africa.

George Bizos shuffles slowly across Fox Street, in the centre of Johannesburg.

A lunchtime crowd is clogging the entrance of a shabby-looking cafe.

Mr Bizos slips inside - unnoticed at first. But within seconds there are nods and smiles of recognition.

The Chinese man behind the till is complaining about the criminals in the area.

“There’s a derelict building on the next block. Chancellor House. It’s full of criminals,” he says sharply.

Mr Bizos’ crumpled, 82-year-old back straightens - his barrister’s instincts alerted.

“That house,” he explains patiently, “is occupied by dozens of squatters who have no alternative accommodation. They should not be casually categorised as criminals.”

It is a good 50 years now since Mr Bizos first bought lunch at this cafe.

He and his friend Nelson Mandela used to come at least once a week to grab a couple of pies and take them back to Mr Mandela’s office around the corner.

As a white man, born in Greece, Mr Bizos could have eaten at the cafe. But in those days black people were not allowed to sit down here.

On the way out today, two men in workmen’s clothes stop Mr Bizos and ask if they can shake his hand.

Historic place

One block down Fox Street, opposite the Magistrate’s court, is the derelict, three-storey building the Chinese man was complaining about.

The walls are blackened by fire. Half a dozen young men are standing outside it. There is a strong smell of marijuana and rubbish.

“A lot of memories,” says Mr Bizos, smiling at the crowd then slowly climbing the pitch-black stairwell of Chancellor House, up to the water-logged landing on the first floor.

At the far end, a makeshift door opens into what was once Mr Mandela’s office - the very first black law firm in South Africa and a place that used to be besieged by clients.

Today it is occupied by a 38-year-old unemployed electrician, Dick Macomary, and his growing family.

There is a mattress on the floor, pots and pans, and some clothes drying by the boarded-up windows.

“Sorry,” says Mr Macomary, clearing away some old newspapers. “It’s a special place. I just don’t have the power to make it more nicely.”

Mr Bizos looks around in the gloom. “If we brought Mr Mandela here now, it would break his heart,” he says.

To the Mandela family, Mr Bizos is Uncle George. Although he is still very active as a human rights lawyer, he is often interrupted by telephone calls asking him to come to a house in the elegant northern suburb of Houghton.

That is where Nelson Mandela is in deep retirement - 10 years older than Mr Bizos, and now rarely seen in public.

Occasionally he slips out to attend a grandchild’s graduation or to visit his home village near the coast. But he tires quickly, and his short-term memory is fading.

Honouring Mandela

Mr Bizos points to a corner of Dick Macomary’s bedroom. “We want to put computers here, and a library over there,” he says.

The plan is to turn Chancellor House into a legal resource centre for young black lawyers.

“Not a mausoleum, but something living,” says Mr Bizos. “Something to honour Mr Mandela. I hope to see that happen in my lifetime - and his.”

Mr Macomary nods enthusiastically. If only it were that simple.

The city council is supposed to offer alternative accommodation to the 60 or so people living in Chancellor House.

Money has at last been allocated. But still, the legal negotiations drag on. It has been a decade now.
Mr Bizos sighs. “This is not good for you, and it is not good for Mr Mandela.

The city council has a reputation for being a little tardy, to say the least,” he says. “It is almost a malaise. Nobody seems to take responsibility.”

Mr Macomary works on the street outside washing cars. “I’m sure the future is bright for everyone,” he says, then stops. “But maybe not for me. I don’t have anything now.

But my babies are going to get everything.”
Mr Bizos shakes his hand and walks out.

Eternal optimist

I ask him if the fate of Chancellor House says something about modern South Africa. He cuts me dead: “I hate generalisations,” he says.

To prove his point we walk east along Fox Street towards the central business district.

“Look at this,” he says, pointing at Main Street. “It used to be a slum. Now it’s like a French boulevard with cafes on the pavements.”

And it is true - large chunks of central Johannesburg are changing. The businesses that were chased out by crime in the 1990s are returning.

A group of lawyers standing outside the Magistrate’s court all turn and smile at Mr Bizos as he walks past in the sunshine.

“I’m optimistic about South Africa,” he says. “But you must bear in mind that I was optimistic in the 40s, and the 50s, and 60s, and so on. I have always been optimistic.”

BBC

 

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