Chancellor House to honour icons

Chancellor House is to be restored and developed into a legal resource centre.
Chancellor House is to be restored and developed into a legal resource centre.
(Image: Lucille Davie)

Chancellor House, the Johannesburg building where Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo set up their first law practice in the 1950s, is to be restored.

The late Tambo, former president of the African National Congress (ANC), described Chancellor House as “a shabby building”, one of the few in Johannesburg that black people were allowed to rent.

“Chancellor House in Fox Street was one of the few buildings in which African tenants could hire offices: it was owned by Indians,” he recalled in the introduction to No Easy Walk to Freedom (1967), a collection of Mandela’s speeches and letters, edited by struggle stalwart Ruth First.

The two-storey building, designed by architect Frank Jarett and constructed around 1948, is to shake off its shabby reputation in the coming months when it is restored. The City of Johannesburg recently expropriated the building, offering the owner, businessman Aziz Essa, R350 000 (US$50 890) for the derelict and fire-damaged structure.

Work on the building began in September 2010, said Yanda Tolobisa, the Johannesburg Development Agency’s project manager for Chancellor House, and is expected to be complete by June 2011.

“The turnaround of Chancellor House is a great achievement, both for reclaiming heritage and for urban renewal in central Johannesburg,” sais Eric Itzkin, deputy director for immovable heritage in the City’s arts, culture and heritage department.

“After wasting away for many years, Chancellor House will take its rightful place as an iconic site celebrating the struggle for human rights,” he said.

Working for the people

Chancellor House, on the corner of Fox and Gerard Sekoto streets in central Johannesburg, was the location in the 1950s of the law offices of Nelson Mandela, later to become South Africa’s first democratically elected president, and Tambo. They had two small offices on the second floor, with the words ”Mandela & Tambo Attorneys” sandblasted on the window.

Author and social historian Luli Callinicos recalled that black people then were desperate for legal help, because the restrictive laws of the time made it all too easy to inadvertently transgress.

“It was a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the street after 11pm, a crime not to have a pass book and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live,” she wrote in her 2000 treatise The World that made Mandela.

“Every day we heard and saw the thousands of humiliations that ordinary Africans confronted every day of their lives.”

Callinicos interviewed South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani two weeks before his assassination in 1993. He said: “We admired [Mandela and Tambo] because we saw in them a different type of intelligentsia; an intelligentsia which is selfless, which was not just concerned about making money, creating a comfortable situation for themselves, but an intelligensia which had lots of time for the struggle of the oppressed people of South Africa.”

Mandela and Tambo’s office was open for business from 1952 to 1960. Both were arrested in 1956 and tried for treason, along with other struggle icons such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Chief Albert Luthuli, Ahmed Kathrada, Ruth First, Helen Joseph and Joe Slovo.

Although charges against 76 of the original 156 defendants were withdrawn before the defence could make its case, the Treason Trial ran for four years before the remaining accused were acquitted in 1961.

During the trial Mandela and Tambo’s legal obligations were curtailed, and other partners joined the firm: Duma Nokwe, Ruth Mompati, Mendi Msimang and Godfrey Pitje, among others. Mandela never returned to the firm.

“I must say my life was shaped by the outlook of people like comrades Tambo, Mandela, Duma Nokwe and others,” stated Hani.

National monument

The Essa family, from Polokwane in Limpopo province, bought Chancellor House in 1943, and have been refusing offers to purchase the historic building ever since.

Lucy Taylor, a Chancellor House activist since 1996, has been trying to get the family to sell the building for many years.

For the past 14 years she has written dozens of letters soliciting support for what she calls the “Living Legal Museum”, a proposal to turn the building into a museum commemorating its two famous tenants, including a coffee shop, law library and legal resource centre for disadvantaged law students.

Taylor has garnered strong support, with Mandela one of those endorsing the project. His response, sent when he was president, reads: “Chancellor House was home to the first black-owned firm in South Africa, which was that firm owned by myself and the late Oliver Tambo – so this project has a special place in my heart.”

The Essa family lawyer Ismail Ayob indicated in a letter that the family did not consider the building to be of historical significance. In 1997 the building was to be demolished to make way for a parking garage, but two years later it was declared a provisional national monument.

Letters of support

Taylor gathered letters of support for her proposal from a wide range of people: advocate George Bizos, judges Albie Sachs, Joel Joffe and Richard Goldstone; businesswoman Irene Menell, the late Adelaide Tambo and her son Dali, and long-time friend of Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada.

In 1997 Sachs wrote to Taylor, saying: “When I was a law student at University of Cape Town in the 1950s I would visit the offices of Mandela and Tambo each time I came to Johannesburg. The building accordingly has strong memories for me.”

Taylor tried to raise funds to buy the property. In August 1998 Abdool Essa wrote to the National Monuments Council saying he would be prepared to sell the building for R925 000 ($143 000).

But this never happened, and Chancellor House became more and more shabby and uninhabitable. Despite its condition, there were around 100 squatters living in it until recently. The building has finally been cleared, the vagrants relocated to various shelters in the city, and the family offered R350 000 for the structure, a price reached after a professional evaluation. It is estimated that refurbishment will cost R10-million ($1.4-million).

“I am delighted something is to be done,” says Taylor, “I have been fighting on empty for 14 years. I am very happy.”

Historical significance

HMJ Prins Architects and UrbanWorks Architecture + Urbanism, both Johannesburg-based, were asked to compile a heritage and conceptual design report on Chancellor House.

“The objective therefore results in finding a way to appropriately commemorate Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo relative to their relationship to Chancellor House,” said the report.

“Chancellor House hereby becomes an important relic in capturing another layer of our recent history. Although the building itself is not of any notable architectural or aesthetic value, our role was to find a way in which to instil a level of historical significance to the structure.”

The building is in Ferreirasdorp, a historically Indian suburb about 100 years old, located in the south-west of the CBD. Ferreirasdorp residents somehow managed to resist the apartheid attempts at forced removals.

The area around Chancellor House contains several important civic buildings: the Family Court, a Home Affairs branch, and the Johannesburg Central Police Station.

Across the road is the Magistrates’ Court, where Mandela and Tambo and their partners represented their clients. In 1952 Mandela was brought before the same court and charged and sentenced under the Suppression of Communism Act.

Place of history

The report outlines the significant surrounding buildings. One block away is Kholvad House, an apartment building where Mandela visited his friend Ahmed Kathrada at number 13. When the law firm closed in 1960 he moved his rooms to this apartment.

“Although my practice had dissolved, my reputation as a lawyer was undimmed,” wrote Mandela in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. “Soon, the lounge of No 13 and the passage outside were crammed with clients. Kathy would return home and discover that the only room in which he could be alone was his kitchen.”

Mandela socialised with other Indian families in Ferreirasdorp. The Pahad family welcomed him, Tambo and Walter Sisulu to their home, where they often had meals. Activists Yusuf Dadoo and the Cachalia family also lived in the suburb, and Mandela often held clandestine meetings in the apartment of Ismail Meer, said Callinicos.

Around the corner on Ntemi Piliso Street was Sitha Investments, Sisulu’s estate agency. Sisulu had a huge influence on the ANC intellectuals, having been a trade unionist and entrepreneur, with a “maturity and wisdom beyond his years”, said Callinicos.

His office became a formative meeting place in the lives of dozens of young intellectuals and activists, including Mandela, she added.

Several blocks north of Chancellor House is Chinatown. The Chinese Club is the oldest building in the precinct. Recently the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) revamped Chinatown, installing concrete benches, new paving and planting trees. Two gateways are soon to appear in the area, demarcating this precinct which dates back over a century.

And barely another block or two away was Kapitan’s, the Indian curry restaurant that remained open to all races throughout the nine decades of its existence. Mandela regularly ate a plate of curry there, and often took ex-wife Winnie to the restaurant when they were courting.

Sadly, Kapitan’s has closed after the deaths in recent years of owners Madanjit Ranchod and his wife Marge.

Future plans

The building has been occupied by squatters since 2000, and a fire several years ago caused damage to the structure. Most of the interior walls are black from fire damage, and there may be damage to some of the supporting walls. The external face brick is in good condition, but the canopy and its support structures need to be replaced.

There will be minimal demolitions said the JDA’s Tolobisa. The basic structure – the facade, the height of the building and the canopy overhanging the pavement – will be restored.

Plans include the possible demolition of the old ablution block and staircase on Fox Street, to make way for the creation of a small inner courtyard and garden.

A permanent photographic exhibition is planned for the second floor rooms from where Mandela and Tambo consulted. The ground floor will house a gallery and exhibition. The old offices on the first and second floors will be restored.

“New displays showcased in windows facing out onto the street, promise to be ground-breaking and visually exciting, with archival images and documents, many of them only recently uncovered and never before seen in public,” said Itzkin.

“I am fully supportive of the project. I would like to see it not merely a historical monument but used by our young people as a library and training centre for candidate attorneys,” wrote Mandela in a 1998 letter.

“I believe that my late partner, Oliver Tambo, would also have wholeheartedly approved if he were still alive,” he concluded.