An enduring friendship with Nelson Mandela:
‘I wish for him a shield to protect him’: human rights lawyer George Bizos on his long-time friend
“If he were in better health, I imagine Nelson would be heavily disappointed by the current family disputes that are playing out for the world to see. He did not expect any privilege for himself and I know he would appeal to them now to follow his example. The matter of his final resting place is also beyond dispute and is a decision he made a long, long time ago.
I was reminded of that fact in January of this year, not long after he was released from hospital, when I went to visit him at his Houghton home. As soon as I entered the living room, he called out to the staff: “Get me my boots.”
“What do you want your boots for, Tata?” one of them asked.
“George is here. He will take me to Qunu,” he answered.
It was clear that he wanted to go home.
Qunu is a place that is very near and dear to Madiba’s heart. It is where he has enjoyed his retirement, where his contemporaries knocked on his door uninvited and unannounced, something he greatly enjoyed.
It is also there, in the kraal, where he chose his final resting place, in consultation with Graca, something he has talked about many times and always in practical tones.
Nelson doesn’t fear death. He once said that when he eventually departs, he would look for the nearest ANC branch in heaven and join it. And he has often said – in jest – that when he dies, he will be in the good company of Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Chief Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo.
I last saw Nelson at his Houghton home a week or so before he was admitted to hospital last month and we strolled down memory lane, as we often do. But he asked some questions that saddened me.
“When did you last see Oliver [Tambo]?” he wanted to know. “How’s Walter [Sisulu]?”
I couldn’t lie to him and so I reminded him that they had passed on many years ago. I recall a blank expression sweeping over his face for a moment or so, before the conversation got back on track.
As I was saying goodbye, he turned to me and said, “George, make sure that you don’t leave your jacket behind.”
As it turned out, I had left it in the car, but Nelson’s words touched me. He was being thoughtful and wanted me to shield myself from the winter chill that had crept into this part of the world.
Today, on his 95th birthday, I also wish for him a shield to protect him as he finds his way back to good health.
I have said to him on many birthday occasions in the past, here’s to your 100th birthday. “You are optimistic,” he would laugh in response.
I sincerely hope not, my friend.”