The death of Advocate George Bizos, SC yesterday 9 September 2020 marks the end of an era in the making of South Africa as a democratic constitutional state. He was 92 years old.
Simply and fairly told, George Bizos SC was the remnant of those who were in the frontline of the struggle for the elimination of apartheid, practically from the time that the apartheid state was established in 1948. George Bizos had reason to position himself not just as a fighter against apartheid but as a champion and campaigner for human rights in his adoptive country.
Bizos came to South Africa at an early age with his refugee father from the emergence of Nazi fascism in Europe and his native Greece. They were granted asylum in South Africa during the war years. His family accordingly were a struggling family of shopkeepers who sought to make a decent and honest living in their adoptive land. As such not only did he have the first-hand experience of injustice in a racist state, he also thereby identified with the experience of a large majority of the citizens of the country who suffered the indignity and dehumanization of apartheid.
As a Law student at Wits University, George Bizos got to make friends with some of the most remarkable South Africans who were to influence his life in South Africa for years to come. Not only did he get to make friends with Nelson Mandela, but that he also made friends with Arthur Chaskalson with whom he was to become a lifelong partner in the legal fraternity.
What George Bizos remembered most about his defining experiences at Wits was how Arthur Chaskalson, for example, stood up against the onslaught of justifications for racial exclusion and discrimination against Black fellow students. Asked why he took a stand in this way, Chaskalson could only say that “It was the right thing to do.” That compelling moral consciousness became for Bizos that which marked his life-practice since then. To do the right thing, whatever the circumstances, became a mark of civility and humaneness.
As junior counsel, Bizos joined Chaskalson under Bram Fischer in defence of the Rivonia Trial. As counsel in the Rivonia Trial, he is credited with advising Nelson Mandela to insert the phrase “if needs be…” to his Statement from the Dock lest his statement that he was prepared to die might invite gratuitous revenge from the system.
His greatest and most memorable contribution to the struggle against apartheid was the work he did for more than 30 years to defend those who faced the wrath of apartheid whether it was the freedom fighters charged under the Terrorism Act, or seeking to hold the security system to account for the murder of political detainees without trial in numerous Inquest Hearings or in many other cases to challenge forced removals. These included those of Steve Biko, the Cradock Four, and the later the family of Chris Hani assassinated by the hateful gun of another immigrant from eastern Europe and a conservative Afrikaner politician.
George Bizos featured in many political trials. Apart from the Rivonia Trial he also defended Mrs Winnie Madikizela Mandela in her many brushes with the apartheid security laws. He did so without expectation of making money out of it but simply because it was the right thing to do and that which his conscience compelled him to do. Raymond Suttner, whose defence advocate Bizos was at his trial, says that it was inevitable that he would be found guilty because the actions of the freedom fighters were precisely to challenge the law itself.
Throughout his career Bizos used the privileges of his status as an advocate to support those black colleagues who suffered discrimination in the Bar and the Courts. He made his chambers available to the later Justice Ismail Mahomed to be able to conduct his practice in the Johannesburg Bar where Mahomed was not allowed to have chambers. In earlier years he had done the same to Advocate Duma Nokwe. To many black advocates, he was a mentor and guide. In later years his role in the establishment of the Legal Resources Centre pioneered the introduction of public interest law in South Africa. He spent his final years attached to the Legal Resources Centre, training human rights lawyers, advising, mentoring and conducting litigation as a lead advocate on critical constitutional issues.
In later years, Bizos was among those who helped craft the new South African Constitution and in the establishment of its institutions like the Constitutional Court and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As is well known that in the new dispensation Advocate Bizos became well known not just as Nelson Mandela’s lawyer but as a friend and trusted confidant.
Our democratic constitutional state is a commanding monument to this towering figure who gave so much over such a long time for us to honour our common humanity and shared values. His death is a clarion call for society to return to the values of the Constitution and to honour the principles that shaped our democracy: ubuntu, human rights and social justice, and an accountable, open and just state. These are values this nation is struggling within our day where altruism is no longer valued, but selfishness, materialism leading to corruption have become a way of life-threatening that which so many, including George Bizos, gave their lives for.
The Patron of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, President Thabo Mbeki, the Board and the Staff would like to convey our heartfelt condolences to the Bizos family and our country’s legal fraternity.
We honour George Bizos today. As the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, we hold the memory of him joining us at the private viewing of The Black Panther blockbuster, Academy-winning Hollywood movie, featuring the recently passed away Chadwick Boseman at Killarney Theatre in Johannesburg, in dear remembrance.
May his soul rest in eternal peace.
Issued by the Thabo Mbeki Foundation
10 September 2020