One of Johannesburg’s most historic buildings is finally going to be revamped by the City, acknowledging the role of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo in their Joburg law practice in the 1950s.

Chancellor House, in Fox Street in downtown Joburg, is to be expropriated by the City after protracted negotiations with the owners, the Essa family, have not reached any conclusion. On Thursday, 18 March, several dozen squatters were removed from what remains of the building.

The three-storey structure is in a deplorable state. It has been occupied by squatters for several years, who have lived in unsafe and unhygienic conditions. It will be restored to legal offices, either by the City or by non-profit legal organisations.

“The area which housed the legal offices of former president Nelson Mandela and the late Oliver Tambo in the 1950s will be restored and an exhibit created that will be open to the public to commemorate the historical significance of those offices,” said Lael Bethlehem, the chief executive of the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA).

“The City has made a decision to expropriate the building because the City and the owners have unfortunately not been able to negotiate the purchase and sale of Chancellor House.”

The JDA will manage the project. Joburg is offering the Essa family R350 000 for the building, a price that has been reached after having the building professionally evaluated. It is estimated that the refurbishment will cost R10-million.

Mandela worked first as an attorney in the firm of HM Basner, but in August 1952 opened his own law office. Tambo was working as an attorney for a firm called Kovalsky and Tuch. They were great friends, and Mandela would visit Tambo at his place of work during his lunch hours.

“His even-tempered objectivity was an antidote to my more emotional reactions to issues,” recalls Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom. “It seemed natural for us to practise together and I asked him to join me.”

A few months later Tambo left Kovalsky and Tuch, and joined Mandela.

“‘Mandela and Tambo’ read the brass plate on our office door in Chancellor House, a small building just across the street from the marble statues of justice standing in front of the magistrates’ court in central Johannesburg,” writes Mandela.

He explains that the building was one of the few places where blacks could rent offices in the CBD. Although not the only black lawyers in the country, they were the only firm of black lawyers.

“For Africans, we were the firm of first choice and last resort,” he says. “To reach our offices each morning, we had to move through a crowd of people in the corridors, on the stairs and in our small waiting room.”

Rejecting all offers
The owners have held out for some years, rejecting all offers to buy, believing they could get a higher price. Conditions in the building have steadily deteriorated, posing a serious risk to the homeless people living in it.

“For a building of such historic importance, the situation is reprehensible and this shows rampant disrespect for the history of the building as well as for the City’s by-laws,” said Bethlehem.

Several notices regarding contravention of the by-laws have been sent to the owners, to no effect.

The City recently obtained a court order to evict the squatters in order to abide by its own by-laws regarding health, safety and fire legislation. A fire has already occurred, causing the ground floor to be a blackened shell. The squatters have been moved to alternative emergency shelter.

“I am really happy to see progress on the building,” said Eric Itzkin, the deputy director of immovable heritage in the City’s arts, culture and heritage department. “It has taken long efforts to secure. Now there’s a whole exciting possibility to bring dignity to the building, and commemorate an amazing piece of history.”

He said the JDA, the Johannesburg Property Company, the arts, culture and heritage department, the Johannesburg Heritage Trust and even international bodies had been engaged in concerted efforts to reclaim the building. “It feels like a long road. Now we can move quite quickly, from a problem spot to a site of reflection,” he added.

Yanda Tolobisa, the JDA’s project manager for Chancellor House, said she was busy assembling a team of professionals, and work would start on the building as soon as the team was ready.

Old spirit
Perhaps some of the old spirit of the law firm can be regained.

“I realised quickly what Mandela and Tambo meant to ordinary Africans,” writes Mandela. “It was 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. This was the reason I had become a lawyer in the first place, and my work often made me feel I had made the right decision.”

Mandela and Tambo practised law full time for only four years – in December 1956 both were arrested and charged with treason, along with 154 others. Towards the end of 1957 Tambo was released, and in 1960 he fled the country, only returning in 1990.

The Treason Trial ran for four years. On 29 March 1961, Justice FL Rumpff declared: “The accused are accordingly found not guilty and are discharged.”

Mandela never returned to his law firm in Chancellor House.