Real, deep and meaningful friendships are rare and difficult to come by. I was fortunate to have a few close friends who inspired and motivated me to continue working in the fight for rights for all. This morning, I would like to talk about my friendship with two such friends – Nelson Mandela and Bram Fischer – whose struggles may have been aligned, but were in themselves unique. Alongside them, we played our parts in working to create a new, united South Africa, and part of what I hope to convey this morning is the vision for the country that we shared.
At the end of 1955, 165 men and women were charged with treason before Judges Rumpff, Bekker and Kennedy. Various of the charges related to the accused having adopted the Freedom Charter, which declared that “South Africa belongs to those who live in it”; according to the prosecution, this was a communist-inspired document calling for the overthrow of the government. While the number of people was reduced to approximately 30 after advocates such as lzzy Maisels, Sidney Kentridge and Bram Fischer successfully challenged the indictments, Nelson Mandela’s charges remained.
During the hearing, Judge Bekker took it upon himself to ask Nelson questions. One of the key issues that he raised was the demand of ‘one man, one vote’, and noting the concerns that white South Africans had with this notion, asked whether the ANC would settle for less. To this, Nelson responded, “My lord, I am alone in the witness box, I can’t speak for my organisation. We have been knocking on the door of the deaf for a hundred years but there has not been a response. Put something on the table and we will consider it”.
There was no response, and, as we know, it would be decades before this became a reality for the majority of South Africans. In the meantime, we saw many people wounded and killed, including at Sharpeville and during the student uprisings; the formation of the Pan African Congress under Robert Sobukwe and the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, which was sanctioned even by the ANC’s peace-loving leader, Chief Albert Luthuli; and pervasive social and economic repression. The government of the day hit back with detentions without trial, violence and torture, as well as more insidious ways to achieve their desired ends. The minister could extend terms of imprisonment longer than that imposed by the courts, and black people were prohibited from traveling around the country to seek jobs, occupy homes or live as equal citizens of the country. The rural areas were in turmoil, and I, for instance, assisted Chief Abram Moilaw to resist the so-called Bantu Authorities. Out of the media spotlight, many innocent people were arrested, jailed, beaten, tortured and murdered.
Speech by Adv George Bizos SC (Counsel, Legal Resources Centre)
assisted by lman Ali and Avani Singh