Tuesday, 27 March 2012

201 Days with Bizos (Part IV): My First Nobel Prize ... Winner

One day in mid January George calls me into his office.

"Are you busy this afternoon?" he asks.

"Not particularly."

"Would you like to come with me to visit a friend?"

"Yes.  May I ask who it is?"

"Have you heard of Nadine Gordimer?"

Nadine Gordimer, born in 1923, is a South African author whose writing focuses on moral and racial issues during apartheid. She is a life long political activist and joined the ANC party when it was banned by the apartheid government. 

She was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature when she was recognised as a woman 'who through her magnificent epic writing has been of very great benefit to humanity.'

"As a matter of fact, sir, I happen to have one of her novels in my backpack."  This is true.

"Bring it with you.  Maybe we can convince her to sign it."  He winks and smiles.

Sweet.  My first Nobel Prize winner.

We go for lunch at our usual spot - Bocaccio's - owned by a charming Greek couple.  George and the owners exchange a few words in Greek and they show him freshly picked (and oversized) tomatoes and cucumbers from their garden. After a delicious lunch (tremazzini for me - beef curry for him) a driver arrives to take us to Nadine Gordimer's house.

Her home is simple but charming much like George's. One of her helpers invites us in to where she is sitting. 

I am in the presence of two living legends.

"Nadine, this is one of our brightest young lawyers, Joseph."

"Pleased to meet you Joseph."

"It's such a ... It's very ... Ummm ... Privilege ... Honour ... I'm Joseph."

I look down at her coffee table and see Milan Kundera's L'identité
bookmarked. I tell her I read it a number of years ago when I studied French literature in university and ask what she thinks. She says it is her second time reading it and that "his writing style is just so interesting." Talking literature with a Nobel Prize in Literature winner. No big deal.

Her small stature is contrasted with a mental toughness that is made very clear over the course of the afternoon.

We settle in and she begins telling us about her upcoming novel No Time Like the Present. We even get a sneak preview of some of the pages. It is 2012 and this is her 14th novel. She is 88.

The two begin reminiscing about the past. They worked together on a number of initiatives during the struggle. There is a very clear and very touching mutual respect and admiration they have for one another.

I am awe-struck and silent. I remind myself where I am over and over again.

As we are about to leave, I quickly speak (perhaps for the first time since arriving).

"Miss Gordimer, would you please sign your book for me?"

Without really giving her a chance to answer, I reach into my back pack and take out a copy of July's People probably her most famous novel and the one that likely won her the Nobel Prize. When I learned I was going to South Africa the previous July, I decided to explore some South African literature. Nadine Gordimer's name came up more than once. So I bought her book. Little did I know then that I'd be sitting in her home just 6 months later.

She asks me for the spelling of my name and writes:

For Joseph Chedrawe

With best wishes
Nadine Gordimer

She then looks up at me and asks, "Do you like short stories?"

"Yes, Miss Gordimer."

She quickly shuffles into the next room and returns with a huge brick of a book. I look at the cover and see it is an anthology of short stories she has written between 1957 and 2007.

"May I give you this?"

My mother has always taught me that it is more polite to first refuse an offer of something - be it food, drink or gift - and then accept if the person offering insists.  But I could never even pretend to refuse a gift from Nadine Gordimer.

"How could I refuse!" I exclaim.  Mom would understand.

She signs it and hands it to me:

For Joseph

Nadine Gordimer

Hoping not to push my luck, I ask if it would be alright to take a photograph with her.

"Oh no, no, please. Not like this," she says, referring to her casual dress.

I am disappointed, but George quickly interjects, "Oh, come on Nadine, it's just so he can show his mother."

He puts his arm around her and stands ready for the photo. I join the photo and her daughter (who is visiting from her home in Italy where she is a teacher) snaps it. The light isn't very good and it's not zoomed enough and it might even be a little bit blurry. But I don't care. This is my photograph and it's special.  (Note that this is the first photograph I've added to any of my blog entries.  Score one for the technologically inept!)

As we walk towards the car, I say to George, "I feel like if I keep thanking you for all these wonderful experiences that it will come across as insincere and disingenuous. But thank you Mr Bizos."

"Well it's important that we share these opportunities with our young lawyers. Thank you for all of your help."

The driver takes me home.

"I'll see you tomorrow morning Joseph."

"See you tomorrow morning Mr Bizos."

Monday, 26 March 2012

201 Days with Bizos (Part III): It is well with my soul.

One sunny morning in December, I'm feeling particularly great. I'm on my way to Pretoria with George Bizos for the inauguration of a memorial museum at the Gallows in the Pretoria Correctional Centre. I assisted George with putting together his thoughts for the speech he'll be giving.

But let's go back to a few days before.  George calls me into his office: "Joseph, we have another speech to write.”

As with all other requests from Mr Bizos I tell him unequivocally and without hesitation: "Absolutely Mr Bizos".

(He tells me to call him George but I can't bring myself to do that yet.) 

We sit for an hour together while he speaks and I type.  My favourite moments come when he says, "I want to tell you a story. But it's between you and me. No need to include it in the speech."
The speech is about the death penalty and the executions that took place during apartheid. After an hour he says, "See what you can do with that." I spend the next two hours working on the 2000 word speech and present him with a copy.

"This is excellent work. You are really great, you know."  Words you don’t forget.
He only has one small addition. He wants to include a line from a song sung by the innocent on death row during apartheid. "Senzeni na?" (What have we done?)  It's a hauntingly beautiful and tragic song.  He sings it to me with tears in his eyes.
Speech done. Print final. Make copies for him to hand out at event. Email to media. Done.
"Would you like to come with me tomorrow?"
"Absolutely Mr Bizos."
"Be at my house in the morning.  And wear a suit."
I take a taxi to George's house at 7am. I'm wearing a suit. His house is quaint, modest and charming. Not what one would expect from a living legend. But exactly what you would expect if you knew George who is not one to show off. He gives me a tour of his house and his garden, which reminds me of my grandfather’s (my jedo's) garden. In fact George is around the same age as my jedo would have been if he were still alive.
The driver is very late but when he arrives George is kind and patient. We make it to Pretoria in good time and as we drive through the prison grounds, dozens of correctional officers wave to George and bow their heads as a sign of respect.

The pre-official program involves a breakfast meet-and-greet. It's a who's-who of South African politics. I sit next to George and he quietly says to me, "I am going to introduce you to the people sitting around this table with us."  

Then he begins:  "This is the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  This is the Minister of Correctional Services.  This is the Minister of Justice.  This is the Minister of Home Affairs.  This is the Executive Mayor of Tshwane.  This is High Court Judge Aubrey Ledwaba."  

I am in awe. 

I ask George, "Why are all of these important people here for the opening of a museum?"

He replies, "Didn't I tell you the President is coming?"

George introduces me. "This is Joseph. He is an Oxford educated lawyer from Canada who is working with us at the Legal Resources Centre. He is the cream of the crop."  More words you don't forget.
The Mayor of Tshwane says to me "You are here with Bizos? You know he represented half of the people in this room?" Most high ranking government officials were freedom fighters during the apartheid struggle. 
All the guests have VIP badges.  As far as I can tell, George is the only one with a VVIP badge.  I have no badge. 

President Jacob Zuma arrives.  He and George share a moment in private.  I shake the President's hand and introduce myself.  He politely and kindly says, "It is nice to meet you, Joseph."  I look down.  He also has a VVIP badge.
After breakfast, they divide the attendees into two groups: those who will attend the inaugural museum tour with the President and those who will not. I go with George and the President.
The museum is excellent.  It's a touching tribute to those who were executed by the apartheid regime.  We walk the path of those who were hanged. It's a very emotional hour. George's words from one of his many political trials are featured in the museum.  

When the President unveils the memorial plaque, he and George shed tears together.  George repeats over and over: "They were innocent. They were innocent."  It is a difficult moment for everyone.  At the end of the tour we walk outside to the memorial monument and we each throw a white stone in the garden at the base.
From there we go to a giant marquee where there are more than 500 people already seated, including hundreds of family members of those who were executed.  An African choir sings "It is well with my soul" a beautiful hymn about finding peace after tragedy and everybody sings with them.
I am sitting at a table with an attorney who acted on behalf of political prisoners during apartheid, four family members of executed persons, the President of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, the Mayor of Port Elizabeth, and a High Court judge.
The Minister of Correctional Services gives a passionate speech on the importance of the Gallows memorialisation. She says:  "Many have criticized the expense of a memorial here.  To them I say, we can spare no expense in our country's healing process."  The audience applauds.
She also describes George as "one of the foremost representatives of justice."  He is the only person alive who is honoured in her speech.
George gets up to speak.  There is an extended round of applause as he approaches the microphone.  He begins the speech and then goes completely off script!  I worry for about 10 seconds.  But his impromptu words are better than anything we wrote.  He is passionate and inspiring.  He is interrupted several times to receive applause.  

He finishes with this: "I look around the room and see many families of those that I defended. I have already spoken to a few of you. I hope the rest of you will come see me after the luncheon so we can talk about old times."  He receives a lengthy standing ovation.  Nobody else that day does.
After George is seated, the Master of Ceremonies says, "we owe a great debt to Mr Bizos who is not only an excellent lawyer, but an excellent human being."
There are many speeches.  The most riveting is the testimonial of a former prisoner on death row.  He says "When I was released I promised myself I would never come back here again. So why am I here today?"  It is clear that it is not easy for him to speak of the events he witnessed while on death row, but he is eloquent, articulate and moving.  "I am here to share my story and to honour my comrades who were executed at the hands of the apartheid government."
The lunch continues.  I meet Gwede Mantashe, Secretary-General of the ANC as well as Advocate Simelane, the former Director of Prosecutions whose appointment was declared invalid by the Supreme Court of Appeal, and the former Minister of Defence now leader of the Poko.
President Zuma is introduced to speak.  He begins by leading the crowd in singing Senzeni na.  The entire crowd joins him.  It is a moment I will never forget.  Many tears I shed.  I am not immune.  He says: "We come together today to remember painful times. But we still sing." 

He says to the families, "Today, with you, we feel the emotions that you felt at the time of death of your loved ones."  They also present all of the families of the political activist prisoners who died with a plaque commemorating their deceased love ones as well as a framed photograph of each of their loved ones - the last photograph taken while they were in prison.  They present it to the family of Mini, probably the most famous political activist to have been hanged in the prison.  

Later, all the families gather outside for a photograph with the President.  They are all singing and dancing.  It is a joyous occasion to have their family members honoured in this way after dying so that others could live freely.
Shortly after 3:00pm, we finish our delicious lunch of beef tenderloin and head outside to leave.  As we walk towards the car, dozens of men and women stop George and ask him for a photograph.  I think to myself, "Wow. He's like a rockstar."  Then I realize that to the people of South Africa, he IS a rockstar.  Heck, to me, he's a rockstar!
We receive small tokens of appreciation from the museum - umbrellas and candles - and begin the drive home.  George listens to a cricket match and I fall asleep but wake up when we arrive at George's house.  I thank him for the best day I've had since being here.  He thanks me for my help and hugs me and wishes me a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

"I'm sure we will have many more things to do in 2012."

He's not wrong.

201 Days with Bizos (Part II): Please touch my blood.

After the success of his speech in London, one day, George kindly takes me out for lunch.  We go to his one and only lunch spot, Bocaccio's, a small restaurant owned by a Greek family just a five minute walk from the office outside of Gandhi Square in downtown Johannesburg.  

The five minute walk takes 20.  

We are stopped more than a dozen times by South Africans wanting to thank him and wish him well.  Out of respect, most will not approach him directly, but rather ask me, "Sorry, is this Bizos?"  When I reply that it is, they loudly exclaim, "Mr Bizos!  Please touch my blood!"  The expression is simply a heartfelt way of indicating trust, admiration and friendship.  

One young man starts jumping up and down exclaiming to his friends, "Gents, do you know who this is!  This is Mandela's lawyer!"  A street cleaner sweeps the sidewalk in front of him and says, "It is an honour for me to have you walk on my pavement, Sir."  One elderly woman begins to cry when he shakes her hand and says she cannot wait to go home and tell her entire family that she met "Bizos".  This becomes a regular part of our weekly lunches. 

When we return to the office, he begins to tell me about his next speech. 

"I am being honoured by the University of Pretoria with an honorary doctorate."

"That's wonderful! Congratulations! It can't be your first, can it? 

"No. I believe it is my 12th." 

Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Bizos and I begin to brainstorm ideas for his speech.  He settles on "Don't Blame the Constitution", a theme he has been building on for quite some time in response to increased critiques about what the Constitution has accomplished (or not accomplished, say the critics) post-apartheid.  

Over the course of the weeks that follow, however, we read about a newly emerging target for criticism: the Constitutional Court.  Many politicians and government employees are challenging the Court's power, implying that the Court is over-stepping its boundaries in declaring laws unconstitutional, and announcing the establishment of an assessment body to review the decisions of the Court.  A number of well known former judges, academics and top advocates in the country give speeches defending the Court and George wishes to join them.  

"Joseph, we are changing the title of the speech.  It will now be 'Blame Neither the Constitution Nor the Courts'." 

George's contribution to the dialogue is one only he can make.  At age 83, he has an incredible historical knowledge of the law in South Africa.  He describes the history of the judiciary in South Africa, how there was a time when apartheid era President Kruger described the right of courts to test policy as "a principle of the Devil", and how the apartheid regime at one point established a review body to overturn the decisions of the highest court in the country.  His words are powerful: "These are also two examples of how the apartheid regime responded when it was unhappy with the judiciary.  I hope that our current ruling party does not intend to follow either the regime's example or that of President Kruger." 

I don't know if it's possible to listen hard. But every moment I spend with George, I listen hard. When he speaks, I rarely ask questions for fear of interrupting his train of thought. It is a lesson in patience and humility. More than that, every moment spent with George is a lesson in life from a life well lived.

The speech receives wide media attention all across the country and is cited in many other speeches defending the judiciary that follow, including one made by the first ever Chief Justice of South Africa, Arthur Chaskalson.  (More on him later.)     

I finish here with some of the closing remarks from George's speech: 

The resilience of the human spirit is a powerful thing.  I have always been touched by the innate goodness, incredible generosity and unyielding courage of the human spirit, particularly of those who suffer most.  It is not only well known leaders whom I admire, but also the women in rural areas who burned their passes, the children who refused to attend school on the first day Bantu education came into being, the men who challenged their banning orders, the men and women who were detained without trial, the family members whose sons and daughters were executed, and many others.  

They are responsible for my optimism. It is why I defended hundreds of political prisoners during apartheid despite repeated threats from the regime. It is why, at the age of 83, I continue to practice law. It is why I am so honoured to be with all of you here today: to spread the message and to see your young faces full of hope and optimism. Please do not lose that.
He cannot read this last part without crying.  You begin to understand why the entire country calls him "Uncle George".

201 Days with Bizos (Part I): An Emphatic Yes

As I enter the elevator, I see him.

"Hello", he says.


"You are new here."

"Yes. I've seen your photograph all around the office Mr. Bizos." That's what I say.

"I am going for lunch now. Please come see me this afternoon. We'll have a chat."

I nod obediently.
This was my first encounter with George Bizos, internationally renowned human rights advocate. Born in 1923 to the son of the mayor of a small village in the south of Greece, when he was 13-years-old, he accompanied his father who helped seven New Zealand soldiers hiding in the hills near his village to escape Nazi-occupied Greece. Their boat, originally destined for Crete, caught the attention of a British battleship, which took them to Alexandria, Egypt. From there, he tells me, as refugees, they were given a choice: India or South Africa. He father chose South Africa. After landing in Durban, they made their way to Johannesburg. George did not go to school and instead worked in a small shop. One day, when he was 16, a young teacher in a nearby school asked him where he was going to school. When he told her he wasn't, she took him to her school and began teaching him privately as well. By 1948, the young boy who could not speak English or Afrikaans just a few years earlier was admitted into the law faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand. It was there that he met Nelson Mandela.
I step into his office. 
"Tell me about yourself."
I humbly recite my short professional and academic history to which he replies, "Very impressive........ I met Trudeau, you know."
He then proceeds to tell me about Trudeau's visit to South Africa and his compliments to George and the other drafters of the South African Constitution. You see, George was on the African National Congress' (ANC) Legal and Constitutional Committee and was an advisor at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) where he helped write the South African Constitution.
"Would you like to help me with a speech I am giving next week at the London School of Economics?"
I give an emphatic yes.
After graduating from law school, George's chances of joining the Johannesburg bar as a foreigner, even though he was white, were slim. After a few years as an attorney, he distinguished himself and was finally accepted into the Johannesburg Bar in 1954. He has been practicing for nearly 60 years. During his illustrious career as a human rights advocate, he acted for dozens of well known figures and thousands of political prisoners during apartheid. At the Rivonia Trial, he was part of the team that defended Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu. Nelson Mandela wrote the Foreward to George's memoires.
The following morning, George comes to my office, sits down and asks if I have a few minutes. I give an emphatic yes (the 'emphatic yes' becomes a fixture in my conversations with George). He sits and begins telling me the stories he would like to include in his speech. The topic is "Hellenism, Human Rights and Apartheid". I wonder how he is going to fit the topic of hellenism, which is effectively Greek culture, with the topics of human rights and apartheid. He brilliantly and effortelessly weaves a speech about Greek history and the origin of human rights, of the modern day universality of human rights and of his experiences during apartheid. We laugh often. We cry less. But we do cry. I realize that I am listening to a walking, living, breathing history book. If there were a movie, there would be a piano playing in the background with a montage of the two of us together. 
After finishing dictating his speech to me, he says, "Okay. That's enough. There always comes a point when you have to turn off the tap. See what you can do with what I've given you."
How do you edit a legend? As little as you can. As much as you can. As best you can. I spend a few days working with his thoughts and words. When I finish, I take the finished product to him and sit holding my breath as he reads each page carefully, breathing a sigh of relief each time he moves on to the next page. We finish the speech and it is a big hit in London.
Upon his return, he asks me if I would like to help him with another speech.
I give an emphatic yes.