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George Bizos: ‘Greece is the mother of democracy and South Africa, its youngest daughter’

The four years after his release were the loneliest of Nelson’s life. More than ten thousand people were killed in political violence. Estranged from his wife, Nelson’s relationship with his children was strained. He lived alone with his four grandsons from his son Makgatho in his large home in Houghton.

I would visit him often and we would eat together at the waxed dining-room table in the silent house. It was sometimes painful to witness the solitude of this warm and generous family man. He was always courteous and engaged, yet in repose his face could look stony, even hard, and his unspoken sorrow immense.

Nelson shared his bed with his grandson Mbuso, who was only eight when Nelson was released. When a high-profile American visitor came to the country, I was asked to arrange a meeting with Nelson. I organised a dinner attended by about fifteen people at the Three Ships Restaurant at the Carlton Hotel. Nelson arrived first, just before 7 p.m., with Mbuso.

He explained that, while he was dressing, the boy had asked him if he was going out again, and started crying. To pacify him, Nelson had brought him along. We arranged a special chair at the table with a couple of cushions on it and Mbuso ordered sausages and chips. He was unimpressed with the elegance of the service when his meal arrived, asking only, ‘But where is the tomato sauce?’

Nelson was coy at first about his relationship with Graça Machel, the widow of President Samora Machel of Mozambique. They had met in 1992. He was reluctant to make a public announcement about their intentions, although he did disclose in a television interview that ‘I am in love with a remarkable lady’.

There was a certain period when it was not generally known that she had moved in with him. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as a close friend, tried in private to persuade Nelson to marry her, but when he declined, Tutu said publicly that it was unbecoming of the president of the country not to marry the person with whom he was living.

I knew that a marriage was imminent in 1998 when Nelson mentioned to me, as though in passing, that Graça’s relatives were arriving the following weekend. Respectful of his desire for privacy, I refrained from further questions. The next weekend, on his eightieth birthday, they married in a private ceremony on the lawn of his home.

A very happy marriage

I met Graça at the Houghton house. She has never accepted that the death of her first husband was an accident and I was impressed by her determination to prove that the South African military was responsible. Samora Machel had died in a plane crash on the border between his country and South Africa. The Mozambicans claimed that the South African military had put up false beacons to confuse the pilot, who descended thinking that he was soon to land. Instead he was approaching a mountain. The South African government alleged that the Russian pilot was drunk. There was a strong denial from the Russian ministry of foreign affairs and a call for evidence of the allegation of drunkenness. Foreign minister Pik Botha would later acknowledge that he was ‘misinformed’.

Nelson accepted and understood why Graça wanted to retain the Machel name. He was an admirer of Machel, who had gained freedom from the Portuguese colonial occupation in Mozambique while Nelson was in prison. He had made his country available to South Africans in exile. Nelson also knew the reasons that had led Machel to sign the Nkomati Accord and to agree to stop helping exiles in exchange for the South Africans ceasing to support Remamo (an undertaking that the South African government would break).

My wedding gift to Nelson and Graça has an interesting provenance. Well-known artist Cyril Coetzee, a lecturer at Wits, had signed a contract with a local gallery for the distribution of his work. But the gallery failed to promote his pictures and left them in a storeroom. On top of this, he was obliged to pay one-third of anything he earned – mainly from portraits of academic heads and others – even though he was not getting commissions through the gallery. His father-in-law was a close friend and asked for my help.

I negotiated the termination of the contract on Cyril’s behalf. In return, he painted a portrait of me in my senior-counsel robes and refused payment as he felt it was the least he could do after I had liberated him from the contract. He would, however, allow me to pay, at a highly reduced rate, for a life-size portrait of Nelson and Graça. The portrait was hung on the wall of the staircase leading to the bedrooms at the house in Houghton.

Nelson’s marriage to Graça was a very happy one. They were caring and compatible companions. If asked to do anything, he would happily reply that he would have to get permission from his wife first. Graça paid special attention to Nelson’s friends, and we were always warmly welcomed into their home.

She did all she could to promote the unity of the extended family. After the divorce, Nelson and Winnie were not on speaking terms and she was not included in family gatherings or celebrations. When Graça arranged a party to celebrate the graduation of one of Nelson’s grandchildren from initiation school, she insisted that Winnie be invited.

‘How would the young man feel if his grandmother is excluded?’ she asked. ‘This is a great day for the boy who is becoming a man and he is entitled to be proud before both his grandmother and his grandfather.’ Nelson reluctantly agreed.

After this Graça insisted on inviting Winnie to every family occasion, often giving her pride of place in the seating arrangements, including at the wedding of Nelson’s eldest grandson, Mandla Mandela. Winnie would often attend, although Nelson would not receive her with any enthusiasm.

An honorary citizen of Ancient Olympia

Internationally, Nelson was a hero, and no more so than in Greece, where he was regarded not only as a world statesman, but also as a friend. On Sharpeville day in 1983, the ancient Greek city of Olympia (the birthplace of the Olympic Games in the valley of Ilias in the Peloponnese) had conferred honorary citizenship on him. The prison authorities had withheld the official letter notifying him and he was oblivious to the recognition. I discovered the award quite by chance when the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa invited me to a conference in Athens. Our delegation visited Ancient Olympia and I was asked to translate the mayor’s speech from Greek into English. After I had finished, he asked me where I was from that I could speak such good Greek. I told him that I was born in Greece, but lived in South Africa.

‘Your Nelson Mandela is an honorary citizen of Ancient Olympia,’ he told me, before adding that Nelson had never acknowledged it. I told him that I was Nelson’s lawyer and friend, and assured him that Nelson would have responded if he had known. The mayor then took me by the arm and led me into his office to show me the large portrait of Nelson that took pride of place behind his desk. On my return, I informed Nelson. He would later tell me that he considered it one of the most important awards conferred on him.

It is fitting that the first and only holiday that Nelson and I ever took together was in Greece. In 2002, he and Graça were invited to Athens as guests of the minister of foreign affairs, George Papandreou. Arethe and I accompanied them and the four of us planned to holiday together after the official business of the trip was concluded. Our itinerary included a yacht trip to certain of the Aegean and Ionian islands, and a stop in the Venetian-built harbour of Koroni, the port town near my family village of Vasilitsi.

Arethe and I arrived a few days before Nelson and his party. Our room was on the floor above his in a luxury hotel on Constitution Square in Athens. After Nelson had settled in from the airport, he rang me and asked me to come down. I found him in the semi-darkness of the draped lounge of the presidential suite and I drew back the heavy curtains to allow in the white heat of noon. Before us the panorama across Constitution Square stretched from parliament to the Parthenon.

‘George, are you sure that I have not been here before?’ Nelson said in a voice barely above a whisper. He was staring as if dazed at the Acropolis. After a long silence, he confessed that he had now forgotten what he had wanted to discuss.

‘Greece is the mother of democracy and South Africa, its youngest daughter,’ Nelson proclaimed to the large audience at the first event to welcome him to Greece and to honour his support for the Olympic Truce campaign, as well as for his contribution to the advancement of universal peace.

George Papandreou had campaigned to restore the spirit of the ancient Olympic Games by calling on the nations of the world to adopt what was in antiquity known as Ekeheiria – ‘the Olympic truce’. The terms of this truce required all hostilities to cease for seven days before and after the games to allow the athletes, officials and spectators to travel to Olympia, participate in the games, and return home in safety.

Papandreou hoped that the initiative would demonstrate the positive contribution that sport could make to global peace. In 2001 he had asked me to approach Nelson to be a sponsor of the initiative together with other international dignitaries, including Kofi Annan, then secretary general of the UN, and Jacques Rogge, then president of the International Olympic Committee. Nelson had agreed.

The initiative received enthusiastic high-level support and was officially announced during the flame-lighting ceremony for the Olympic Winter Games in Olympia in November 2001. In December of the same year, all one hundred and seventy members of the UN general assembly passed a resolution in its favour.

The opening function for Nelson’s visit took place at the Megaro Mousikis, the largest concert hall in Greece. Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis, the director of the International Olympic Truce Centre, asked us to stand as George Papandreou and Nelson Mandela appeared on stage.

Nelson was already seated between Lambrinidis and Papandreou when he asked audibly, ‘Where is George? Let him come here.’ I was sitting with the rest of his party in the area reserved for diplomats, but was called up to join him. Slightly embarrassed, I whispered short summaries of the speeches delivered in Greek into Nelson’s ear in the hope that my sudden elevation would not offend those who preferred strict adherence to protocol.

Ambassador Lambrinidis read out the final paragraph of the truce:

Humanity’s quest is for a world free of hatred, terrorism and war, where ideals of peace, goodwill and mutual respect form the basis of relations among people and countries. The goal may still remain elusive, but if the Olympic Truce can help us bring about even a brief respite from conflict and strife it will send a powerful message of hope to the international community […] we pledge to support and disseminate, individually and collectively, the symbolic call for the Olympic Truce throughout all future Olympic Games and beyond, and to exercise our best efforts within our communities, countries and relevant international organisations to achieve its recognition and observance.

As Nelson took his pen from his inside jacket pocket to sign the declaration, already endorsed by presidents, prime ministers, members of parliament and religious leaders from across the world, he received a standing ovation. The world-renowned composer Mikis Theodorakis, who had survived the German occupation, civil war, detention without trial, torture and exile, came forward. He stretched out his hand to Nelson, who grasped it firmly to enthusiastic applause. ‘Your example shows us that everything is possible, even world peace,’ Mikis told Nelson.

After George Papandreou had signed he invited me to do the same, followed by a number of intellectuals, academics and artists. The few among them who made speeches addressed themselves to Nelson, describing him as a hero, icon, world leader, peacemaker, reconciler and (could there be higher praise from such an audience?) ‘a committed philhellene’.

* This is an extract taken from George Bizos’ book, 65 Years of Friendship, published by Umuzi.

** Advocate George Bizos questions Joe Verster during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing. (Photo: Gallo Images)

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