Mandela’s old friends recall the ‘fearless’ and ‘humble’ man they knew

George Bizos, left, arrives for his 80th birthday party with former president Nelson Mandela, right, in Johannesburg in 2008. Few lawyers are considered to have done more to challenge the apartheid government than Bizos, a lifelong friend of Mandela. Denis Farrell / ASSOCIATED PRESS

To many Nelson Mandela is an icon, a revered human rights champion. But to those who knew him best, he was simply a friend and a “humble man.”

George Bizos was a first year law student at Wits University in Johannesburg when he met the charismatic leader of the ANC youth league in 1948.

“He was tall, handsome and well dressed,” Bizos said in an exclusive interview with NBC News last year. “He was a great speaker. We didn’t have microphones but he had no difficulty in making himself heard to large gatherings of students.”

Bizos, who fled from Nazi-occupied Greece in 1941, said the pair bonded after South Africa introduced apartheid laws in 1948.

“It was almost an illicit friendship,” he said. “I would need a permit to visit him in Soweto, which most of us weren’t prepared to ask for. He couldn’t be in the city after 9 o'clock because there was a curfew for black people. So it was difficult times.”

Ultimately Bizos ended up being one of Mandela's defense lawyers when he was charged with four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government in what became known as the Rivonia Trial in 1963. 

“We feared there would be a death sentence,” he said. But he added that in a famous speech to the judge after he was convicted, Mandela told the judge he was prepared to die for his cause.

“That was his level of commitment,” he said. And he continued to hold that belief, even after he was found guilty on all four charges and sentenced to life imprisonment, rather than death in 1964.

“He was fearless,” said Bizos. “When you make a decision that you are prepared to die for a cause, what have you got to be afraid of….Despair disappears from people who are on the brink of losing their lives. And if they have accepted it, that’s it, do your worst.”

Crowds gather in hometown of Nelson Mandela 1:18

Mac Maharaj became friends with Mandela after he was imprisoned on Robben Island for political activism in 1965.

“They were really dark days.... There was lots of physical brutality in addition to all the other deprivations,” Maharaj told NBC News. “You were barefoot, you had short trousers and a shirt with short sleeves....It didn’t matter what the weather was.”

Because of his physical stature, he said Mandela “stands out in any group,” but it was his qualities as a listener that made him stand out to both prisoner and warder alike.

“He grew up in the Xhosa society,” he said. “It is a slow moving, traditional society…. At the end of the day the leader had to sum up and articulate a consensus viewpoint based on listening to every person and the arguments they had raised…Then in his training as a lawyer you need also to be a damn good listener.”

Maharaj, who was released from prison in 1976, said, “we admired the qualities in him because we saw him as a leader among us.”

Amina Frense, whose parents were also jailed on Robben Island for their activism, said Mandela was a “humble person."

“I think he probably never realized” the impact he had on the world, the South African journalist said during the March 2013 interview with NBC.

Even though her parents were family friends of Mandela, she only met him for the first time after he was released from prison in 1990. She subsequently covered him on international trips as a journalist. She said the world would miss his statesmanship.

But for Maharaj it was Mandela’s human qualities that made him so appealing.

“A young person, a teenager in Toronto, a youth in Sao Paolo, he sees the possibility of himself or herself being a Mandela,” he said. “There’s no beating around the bush. This man is not a perfect man, he’s like you and me.”