Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mandela office Nelson

The 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.The Johannesburg building that once housed Nelson Mandela's law firm is now a derelict squat.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 placeOne 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.

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