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  • Nelson Mandela’s law office reborn as museum

    By Mark | May 10, 2011

    Johannesburg leaders champion restoration of Chancellor House – home to South Africa’s first black law partnership, between Mandela and Oliver Tambo

    Guardian, 4 May

    The central Johannesburg building where Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo shared a law office was on the verge of collapse for years. Now, city officials hope it will be the focus of a renaissance.

    The city’s mayor, Amos Masondo, showed off the results of spending 5m rand (about £460,000) over the past year to turn Chancellor House into a museum and archive. Mandela and Tambo, who both went on to lead the African National Congress, opened the country’s first black law partnership on the top floor in 1952 and closed it in 1960, when their political work made it impossible for them to keep practising.

    Another 2m rand has been set aside to put the finishing touches to the renovation and to install the museum, which will trace the building’s history and house the digital archive of cases handled by Mandela and Tambo. Masondo said he hoped that private businesses would now be drawn to the area and help drive the renewal of the dilapidated neighbourhood.

    Mandela and Tambo held political meetings at Chancellor House, and it was a hub of legal preparations for those arrested during the 1952 defiance campaign, when black people were encouraged to break racial separation laws, and in 1956, when Mandela and Tambo were among 156 defendants charged with treason for supporting the freedom charter calling for a non-racial democracy.

    Both leaders represented black people who had broken apartheid-era laws by committing acts such as riding on white-only buses or drinking from fountains reserved for white people.

    In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote that for black South Africans, the Chancellor House offices were “a place where they could come and find a sympathetic ear and a competent ally, a place where they would not be either turned away or cheated, a place where they might actually feel proud to be represented by men of their own skin colour”.

    Mandela’s own lawyer, George Bizos, said on Wednesday that this tradition must continue. Bizos is working with other lawyers to raise funds to open a law library at Chancellor House and maintain offices there for lawyers who cannot afford facilities in the area.

    The goal is “to make it not a monument, but a living structure, a living place in honour of particularly Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo”, Bizos said.

    Chancellor House is across the road from the city’s stately main magistrates court. But telltale signs – broken windows, rusted roofs – show that neighbouring buildings have been abandoned. As apartheid ended, white business owners and residents of central Johannesburg fled or simply stopped maintaining their property.

    Renewal efforts have had some successes in recent years, but it sometimes appeared that Chancellor House was to be forgotten, despite the efforts of historians and activists. Squatters had moved in, and Masondo said the building’s owners had considered tearing it down and erecting a car park. In 1999, efforts began to have it declared a national monument. The city took it over, allowing renovations to begin in June 2010. Nkosinathi Manzana, chief operating officer of the city’s development agency, said 30 tonnes of debris had to be removed just to allow experts in so they could determine whether the building could be saved.

    Water damage and fires had seriously weakened the building. In the end, renovators had to erect a steel structure to support the building and replace its roof.

    From the outside, Chancellor House looks much as it did when it was built in the early 1940s. Manzana said the wood and glass front doors dated from Mandela’s day, but little else was salvageable after decades of neglect and vandalism. Architects searched antique shops to find parquet flooring for the ground floor and the top floor offices where Mandela and Tambo worked.

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