‘I can still hear them in the corridors’

2011-05-07 17:18

Acting judge George Bizos quietly shed a tear when he walked through the renovated Chancellor House this week.

The 82-year-old judge was attending the unveiling of the R5 million facelift bestowed on the central Johannesburg building where Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo opened a law office in the 50s.

Bizos is one of few survivors of the struggle against apartheid old enough to remember the opening of South Africa’s first black law partnership on the top floor of Chancellor House in 1952.

He can still hear the echo of ­Mandela and Tambo’s voices in the ­corridors.

Proudly displaying his administration’s efforts to turn the dilapidated old building into a “living” museum and archive, Metro Mayor Amos Masondo said the council would spend another R2?million on finishing touches.

These would include a museum and a digital archive of cases handled by Mandela and Tambo.

Asked what had gone through his mind as he walked into the ­renovated building, Bizos said: “It was an occasion which brought back to memory the early 50s, when I was a young lawyer briefed by Mandela and Tambo.”

The opening of the Tambo/Mandela practice, Bizos said, was a very important development in the ­legal profession.

They were the first black legal representatives whose doors were always open to people, not only those involved in political trials but also those with other problems.

“I was regularly briefed by them for political as well as non-political trials,” said Bizos.

Their friendship, he added, had started in 1948 when they were ­fellow students.

Mandela and Tambo rendered “tremendous services” to people who couldn’t afford legal fees. And the people, remembered Bizos, came from all over the country to consult them.

“People really looked up to them,” he said.

He added that it was the first time that black people were ­defended by competent lawyers of their own. And people were proud of them.

“I lived through that,” said Bizos. “I was his (Mandela’s) counsel through the 50s treason trial and Rivonia.

“And I was very upset when the building became a ruin, when there was talk of turning it into a parking garage or a park.”

Bizos said he wanted to congratulate the council for restoring the building as it would serve as a ­“living” place of remembrance for Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, a legal centre for lawyers willing to do pro bono work.

He pointed out that Chancellor House was just across the street from the Johannesburg Magistrates Court, so people only had to cross the street between the court and Chancellor House to get help.

Bizos is now working with other legal practitioners to raise funds to open a law library at Chancellor House and establish offices for lawyers who cannot afford offices in the area.

“It was a pleasant occasion,” he said. “One could have shed tears of joy. We almost lost it (the ­building).”

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