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.

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