Costa Gazidis grew up in the West Rand town of Krugersdorp where his Greek-born parents ran a café. While helping his parents, Costa became aware of the iniquities and inequalities racial segregation.
After graduating from Krugersdorp High School, Costa studied engineering before switching to medicine. After reading Karl Marx’s banned Communist Manifesto, Costa became convinced that communism offered a path towards racial equality and shared wealth.
In this picture of the prefects at Krugersdorp High School, in 1953 we see both Costa Gazidis standing third from the left in the back row – and me, Chaim M Rosenberg seated extreme right.
Conscious of injustices
At the start of our anatomy year, Costa was incensed on learning that black students were forbidden to dissect white cadavers. His son Ivan recalls “When the students used to dissect a cadaver, if it was a black body, all the students watched. When there was a white body, there would be a sign outside to say ‘whites only’. One day they had thought the body would be black and it turned out to be white. They asked all the black students to leave the room. My father also left the room”. Costa’s protest was unnoticed by the majority of the class of mainly young white males.
From that moment on, Costa got more and more involved with the ANC. Like Mandela and others, he became a target for the South African secret police. There were many police informers on campus.
Upon graduating MB BCh, Costa was under the surveillance of the police special branch. He was not allowed to carry out his house jobs at Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital in Johannesburg and King Edward VII Hospital in Durban. He was not permitted to work at the Baragwanath hospital. He eventually found a job in the medical department of the West Rand Consolidated Mines.
In 1962, he joined the Communist Party and was the health secretary of the Pan-African Congress (PAC). He said, ‘People were astonished that the PAC had a white member.’
Costa Gazidis’ son Ivan was born in 1964 when his father was in jail. Costa, along with 12 others, had been arrested and tried after the Rivonia trial in what was called the Bram Fischer trial. He was incarcerated with other white political prisoners. Blacks were put in other jails, notably Robben Island. He was there for just over two years. He was in solitary confinement for six months. Costa says that that is the worst torture that you can put anyone through.
He was finally released in 1967 but placed under surveillance, prohibited from being in a room with more than two people and blacklisted as a doctor. Costa said: ‘I became very isolated and was not allowed to further my studies.
Exile to the UK
In 1968, Costa and his family left South Africa for the UK. Ivan was only four year’s old but can still vividly remember his family giving up their South African passports and arriving with absolutely nothing in the UK. The Gazidis family lived on council estates in Edinburgh and Portsmouth. All these stresses affected his marriage, leading to a divorce. Ivan and his mother, Dorothea, moved to Manchester.
Costa continued to support the struggle against apartheid. He broke with the Communist Party after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.
Return to South Africa
In 1990, after 22 years in exile, Costa returned to South Africa. In the 1994 election, he stood as a PAC candidate for parliament, but did not win a seat. Determined to serve the people, he took a position to run community clinics under the auspices of the Cecelia Makiwane hospital in Mdantsane. He was soon at loggerheads with the ANC government over his determination to use AZT in treating AIDS-infected pregnant patients. Fined for insubordination, Costa took his case to the Pretoria High Court and, after a long-drawn-out trial, he won.
Costa’s son Ivan was educated at Manchester Grammar School and went on to St Edmund Hall, Oxford for a law degree. His career has been in football where he has been an Oxford Blue; then deputy commissioner of Major League Soccer in charge of marketing. From 2008 to 2018 he was the Chief Executive of Arsenal. He is now CEO of AC Milan.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph football correspondent in the week of Mandela’s funeral, in 2013, Ivan Gazidis (above) spoke about the rare courage his parents had shown as white anti-apartheid activists during the decades of struggle in South Africa. He said that Costa’s willingness to place what was right ahead of his own self-interest, still leaves him awestruck.
When Ivan accompanied his father on a tour of Robben Island, the guide introduced Costa to other visitors as ‘a hero’.
Costa now living in Cape Town, remains as passionate about tackling social injustice as he was in the apartheid years. He has campaigned for antiretroviral drugs to be more available in South Africa to fight HIV and Aids. Costa never wavered from his desire to save lives.
Costa Gazidis MB BCh Cape Town
Compiled by Chaim M Rosenberg, Chicago
Edited by Geraldine Auerbach, MBE, London, July 2020