George Bizos on the Johannesburg Bar’s tearoom politics
In his autobiography, Odyssey to Freedom, George Bizos recounts how Ismail Mahomed joined the Johannesburg Bar a few years after Nokwe, and how non-whites were eventually admitted to the Society's common room.
"WE [Mahomed and Bizos] had become good friends during our student days on the SRC and he asked me to move his admission to the Bar. A separate robing room and toilet had been set aside for Duma Nokwe at the Pretoria Court, but Ismail and I decided that we would not use the little room provided for 'non-white advocates'. Instead, we walked together into the robing room established for counsel at the beginning of the century.
"Those in the rooms fell silent as they watched me struggling to get the studs through the holes of the over-starched white-winged collar on Ismail's double-cuffed shirt. A senior member of the Pretoria Bar asked me if I knew that there was a separate robing room for non-whites. I muttered something but neither of us took the matter any further. Then a senior member of the Johannesburg Bar, with a reputation as a teller of awful ethnic jokes, launched into a story using a hopelessly inauthentic Indian accent. His story fell flat. At least the judges who admitted Ismail wished him well.
For over fifteen years, however, there was one privilege he could not enjoy. He did not take tea or lunch in the common room.
"For years Ismail moved from office to office until he eventually found permanent chambers. Despite this handicap, he developed one of the busiest practices at the Johannesburg Bar and even the most fashionable attorneys and their clients sought his services. For over fifteen years, however, there was one privilege he could not enjoy. He did not take tea or lunch in the common room. The fiction was that he chose not to. In reality he feared the threat made by the protesters against Nokwe, that if he joined his white colleagues in the common room, he would be reported to the Group Areas Act inspectors.
"Towards the end of 1973 Joan Mostert, a teacher of Afrikaans literature, was bemoaning the way in which her people, the Afrikaners, treated black people. I told her not to be too hard on them. 'Had the members of the Johannesburg Bar been any better?' I asked. Ismail Mahomed and other black advocates who had joined the Bar still didn't use the common room. She called over her husband Anton. He was influential with the government of the time, and was regularly briefed to act for the State. How could he and his colleagues tolerate this state of affairs? Anton, with his usual confidence, announced that he would guarantee to the chairman of the Bar Council, Sydney Kentridge, that no action would be taken by the government or any of its officials if black members of the bar made use of the common room. And so the situation changed."
- Bizos, G. Odyssey to Freedom, Random House, 2007, pp142-143