George Bizos: Nadine Gordimer hated injustice

2017-05-19 07:57

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Nadine Gordimer: The Activist

The relationship between [Nadine Gordimer's] writing and her social responsibility was one of the central questions of her life. Her involvement in the struggle against apartheid took a number of forms, some of which intertwine with my own story. She often attended political trials. She sat with the public at the back of the court house, watching proceedings unfold. She would discuss the cases with me during breaks. She was making notes, thinking of and remembering things she would later make use of in her written work. 

She often assisted me, playing the role of behind-the-scenes editor of crucial pieces of writing and speech during the struggle against apartheid. 

In 1963, the ANC leadership were arrested at their headquarters - Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia. Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Dennis Goldberg, Rusty Bernstein and Bob Hepple were taken into custody by police. Thus began the work of Bram Fisher, Vernon Berrange, Joel Joffe, with Arthur Chaskalson and myself on the defending the Rivonia trialists. In the lead up to the trial, the UN General Assembly had passed a resolution, by one hundred and six votes to one, demanding the abandonment of the Rivonia trial.

We decided it was necessary to publicise the resolution both locally and internationally. Similarly, at the time of the trial, we decided it was necessary to promote the international campaign for the release of the detainees by providing personal detail to local and foreign journalists. We had each accused write up autobiographical notes about themselves, about their families, their political beliefs, and their underground work. Nadine Gordimer, by then an established authoress, reviewed and edited these autographical statements. She did a marvellous job. These statements were duplicated and distributed, in the hope that they would assist in dispelling negative perceptions about the accused that had been created by the apartheid-sympathetic press.

Later on in the trial, Nelson Mandela showed us, for the first time, the statement that he intended to make from the dock. His closing words stated that he was ready to die for what he had done. After some discussion between Nelson and the legal team, I proposed that Nelson change the final lines to state that he hoped to live and achieve his ideals, but if needs be was prepared to die. We agreed. Nelson then gave me permission to take a copy of his statement to Nadine Gordimer. At the time, Anthony Sampson, editor of Drum in the 1950s and good friend of Nadine’s, was staying with her. Sampson also knew Nelson well. I asked Sampson to review the statement. He withdrew to Nadine’s study. After an hour and half, he returned, having re-ordered the contents of the statement. He noted that, in order to have maximum impact, it was necessary to move many of the impactful paragraphs to the start, since busy journalists were likely to read the first few pages, and then skip straight to the end of the statement. We took his advice. Both Sampson and Gordimer were most impressed by the statement.

During the 1960s, Nadine Gordimer’s political consciousness was being fully explored in her fiction. She was particularly fascinated by the story of Bram (a shortening of “Abram”) Fischer. When he was brought to trial, she attended proceedings. She wrote two non- fiction pieces about Fischer, and her interest in him persisted and resulted in her seventh novel, Burger’s Daughter. This novel is an excellent example of how personal knowledge can be translated into fiction. The book’s jacket describes Burger’s Daughter as “a brilliantly realised work [in which] Nadine Gordimer unfolds the story of a young woman’s evolving identity in the turbulent political environment that has culminated in present-day South Africa. Her father’s death in prison leaves Rosa Burger alone to explore the intricacies of what it actually means to be Burger’s Daughter…. Nadine Gordimer’s subtle, fastidiously crafted prose sweeps this engrossing narrative to a triumphant conclusion”.

During the latter half of the Rivonia trial, it became clear that the security police had evidence the Bram Fischer was one of the senior leaders of the Communist party, and was actively involved in the underground movement. They did not arrest him at the time. However, on 23 September 1964, Bram Fisher was arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. I was one of Bram Fischer’s legal counsel in his trial. Following Nelson Mandela’s example in the Rivonia Trial, Fischer chose to make a statement from the dock. We worked on the statement very carefully and in great detail, and included a very important explanation as to why Bram was making a statement from the dock rather than from the witness box. As I had done with crucially important documents before, I asked Nadine Gordimer to review his statement, and she helped contribute to its final form.

My most difficult and unpleasant case was the Delmas trial. In total, the matter ran for more than four years, from August 1985 to November 1989 – we spent four hundred and twenty days in court (excluding time spent arguing appeals of the judgement). Twenty two men had been charged with treason, terrorism and furthering the objectives of unlawful organisations. Ultimately, and with bitter disappointment on our part, five of our clients were convicted. We then had the task of arguing in mitigation of their sentences. One of the people we asked to give evidence in mitigation was, upon my insistence, was Nadine Gordimer.

She faced vigorous cross-examination about her political beliefs, but she did not waver. She did not apologise for being a supporter of the policies of the ANC and its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, as well as of the use of force. She supported economic and other sanctions. She was an active supporter of the United Democratic Front. This testimony showed her absolute fearlessness. On their way home that evening, her then husband, Rienhold Cassirer remarked that it was perhaps wise that she stay at a friend for the night, for fear that the security police would be looking to pick her up. She ignored this advice, and she was not picked up by the security police. It was already the 1980s, the writing was on the wall for the apartheid government, and they were likely concerned about the worldwide protests that would inevitably follow. 

When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, and Nelson decided to accept the shared prize, both Nadine and I were invited to accompany him to Oslo for the award ceremony. Nelson’s daughter, Zenani, was also part of the delegation. Relations between the Mandela delegation and the de Klerk delegation were not at all times absolutely genial. When asked by journalist to comment on the award of the prize to both, Zenani said “my father deserved it”. Things got worse. Nelson had expected that in his acceptance speech, President de Klerk would acknowledge the evils of Apartheid. Instead he said that both sides had made mistakes, which infuriated Mandela. At the Prime Minister’s dinner that evening, Nelson made a scathing attack in response. Later, Pik Botha came up to me and said “please tell your president that from now on my President will speak last. He wants an opportunity to answer the things that your President has said”.

Through her life, Gordimer’s identity and politics were challenged, and shifted as a result. Clingman describes how she struggled with “alienation and belonging in the 1950s, her politicisation in the 1960s, the radical challenge to her identity from the Black Consciousness movement in the 1970s, and a process of reconstruction in the 1980s whereby a new set of inner definition comes to match vastly changed external circumstances”. But, he says, “underlying all Gordimer’s changes, the flexibility of a mind growing stronger and more radical as it [grew] older, [was] the firmness of conviction”. 

In 1963, Gordimer initiated her long-standing campaign against censorship, opposing the Publications and Entertainments Act of 1963, which empowered the Publications Control Board to deal with films, plays, objects, magazines and books. In a non-fiction essay on the matter, she speaks angrily about the “principle of mutilation of books through censorship”. She wrote with incredulity of the 102 people who, in terms of the Publications and Entertainments Act, were forbidden from making any communication whatsoever with the public, either through speech or written word. 

After the 1963 Act, came the Publications Act of 1974. It was in terms of the piece of legislation that her novel Burger’s Daughter was banned. In June 1979, the novel had been published in England. By the end of June it had been embargoed in South Africa. By 11 July it had been banned by the Censorship committee. After an internal appeal by the Director of Publications, the novel was “unbanned” or “reinstated”. In April 1980, Nadine Gordimer was awarded the CNA Prize (a top literary award) for Burger’s Daughter.

Her acceptance speech made her feelings clear. She says, revealing her seething anger at the treatment of her novel, others like it, and the work of apartheid regime more generally: 

“Censorship is the weapon of information-control, thought-control, idea-control, above all, the control of healthy doubt and questioning, and as such as much a part of the arsenal of apartheid as the hippos [armoured cars] that went through the streets of Soweto in ’76 … Censorship is necessary for the daily maintenance of racism – and the laws of our country are still racist, whatever fancy names we give them; the very changes that are being made to ease the chafing of those laws around the necks of the masses still reflect racist differentiation in the assessment of people’s needs and self-respect, from the comparative amounts spent on black schools and white schools and pensions to the special arrangements that have to be made, on occasions such as this dinner, to have blacks as guests in a white club”. 

And later in the speech, she says, with admirable fearlessness: 

“A cultural counter-establishment is on the move beyond the government’s control, no matter how many writers’ telephones they tap, how many manuscripts are taken away in police raids on black writers’ houses, no matter how many books they ban. The cage is empty. The keepers are beginning to notice; God knows what they will do next. But the writers are singing in the words of Pablo Neruda: This is the song of what is happening and of what will be”

She was not one for mincing words. She hated censorship because her writing was her struggle against racism and injustice. Even less than a year before her death, Gordimer railed against censorship. She wrote publically and critically about the Protection of State Information Bill.

Her old friend, Anthony Sampson wrote of her, just before his death in 2004, “Nadine Gordimer was small and neat, with a bird-like vivacity and intensity. She talked as precisely as she wrote, telling stories dramatically, with acute observation and curiosity. But her sharp intelligence concealed a warmth and involvement that enriched her friends and gave her writing a deep compassion”.

My friendship with Nadine and her husband and children lasted a long time. After the release of Nelson Mandela, Nadine and I visited Nelson together from time to time. We both had things to discuss with Nelson about the future. Later, we visited one another, both at her home and at mine. She and her husband owned a farm, where we would spend Sundays together occasionally. 

Nadine Gordimer was concerned about the acknowledgement of the humanity of people, irrespective of whether they were black, white, Jews, Greeks, or any other race, religion or grouping. This was a philosophy that both she and I understood and lived by. We shared this. In her novels, she almost invariably dealt with love affairs crossing colour lines. She wanted her readers to understand the normalcy of this love. This kind of statement was part of her protest against oppression.

The equally legendary South African writer, JM Coetzee said of her:

“As a writer and as a human being, Nadine Gordimer responded with exemplary courage and creative energy to the great challenge of her times, the system of apartheid unjustly and heartlessly imposed on the South African people”
Gillian Slovo, herself a well-known writer, and daughter of the late Joe Slovo and Ruth First said:

“Politics, both large and small-scale, was Nadine's subject. Speaking the truth was her passion. She wrote about injustices not only in the bad old days, but in the new. She was a model of what an engaged writer can achieve, and that's what makes her my hero”

She was a remarkable, courageous role model, and I am honoured to have met, worked with, and befriended Nadine Gordimer. 

Recently there has been a small group of commentators, saying that nothing has changed since the Apartheid years. I was at a graduation ceremony a few months ago. The majority of the graduates were black and the majority of that majority were women. I would like to turn to you Mr Vice Chancellor and ask you, when you hear someone saying that nothing in South Africa has changed, please invite them to the next graduation. 

- This is an extract from the original Nadine Gordimer lecture delivered by Adv. George Bizos SC, assisted by Samantha Brener, both at the Legal Resources Centre in the Great Hall of the University of the Witwatersrand on 18 May 2017.

Read more on:    george bizos  |  nadine gordimer

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