Wits University remembers Mandela at fireside chat


A picture of Nelson Mandela greeted guests to the Wits University memorial in honour of the late statesman on Thursday night. Photo: Mfuneko Toyana.

Wits University’s memorial service in honour of late former president Nelson Mandela was not a somber affair.

Nor was it bogged down by strict decorum. Instead, the vast and iconic Wits Great Hall auditorium was transformed into an intimate scene where a few of Madiba’s closest comrades sat together and shared fond memories of the great statesman.

Constitutional Court deputy chief justice and Wits chancellor Dikgang Moseneke facilitated what he termed a “fire-side conversation” with Advocate George Bizos, who defended Mandela at the 1959 Rivonia Trial, and liberation stalwart Ahmed Kathadra, a close confidant of Mandela on Robben Island.

Together, they took the 1000-strong audience, gathered inside and outside the Great Hall, on a leisurely stroll down memory lane, effortlessly evoking the mercurial spirit and humour of their former comrade and the nation’s father.

[pullquote align=”right”]”We have failed to live up to Mandela’s egalitarian vision”[/pullquote]

Moseneke, the younger of the three on the stage, told the audience his first encounter with Mandela was under less “illustrious” circumstances than those of Bizos and Kathadra.


Ahmad Kathrada, a contemporary and confidant of Nelson Mandela who spent many years imprisoned on Robben Island with Mandela. Photo: Wits Communications.

“It was on Robben Island … I used to be a runner for them, delivering newspapers to Mandela and other comrades … I used to cut out all the rubbish like advertisements and then smuggle them in.”

The smile, a somewhat despairing one, in Moseneke’s voice as he conducted proceedings radiated from his words and into the audience, as if the larger than life portrait of a half-smiling Mandela at the entrance of the hall had silently  lifted darkness of loss from the hearts of all of those present.


Advocate George Bizos who defended Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Treason Trials. Photo: Wits Communications.

Bizos and Kathrada took the turns to join in the mock irreverence.

“I met him in 1948 right here,” Bizos chuckled.  “He was always [dressed] in a suit and shiny shoes,” said Bizos, wondering out loud where Mandela could have possibly found the money to look so dapper.

Kathrada, in a low voice, told the audience he had met Mandela two years earlier, in 1946, before eventually being imprisoned on Robben Island with him.

The panel, however, did not shy from using Mandela’s passing to assess how far the country had come in its liberation.

“I get upset when people say nothing has changed,” Bizos chided. “Look at the panel here. Look at the student body.” Bizos said that you would not have kind of diversity during apartheid.

Commenting on the current leadership of the country, he lamented: “We have failed to live up to Mandela’s egalitarian vision… We have failed materially in many respects.”

Bringing an end to proceedings, Moseneke echoed Bizos’ disappointment saying the country had a long way to go. The optimistic tone, however, returned.

“There will be many good men to us through these tempestuous times … We are a nation of good people,” Moseneke said.


Watch a video of the memorial provided by Wits Communications: