“How Nelson Mandela joined us at the hip”

AFRICAN MIRROR REPORTER

RETIRED Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa Dikgang Moseneke has spoken warmly about how the great Nelson Mandela joined him at the hip with the late legendary human rights lawyer George Bizos.

Bizos (92), a towering figure in legal and political circles in South Africa, was also a central and respected figure in the Hellenic community in Johannesburg, where he was affectionately called “Papou George” (Grandfather George).

His funeral service, an official burial with full military honours, was held at the Cathedral of Saints Constantine and Helen in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, a historic church that was built in 1912. It is the church where Bizos was married and where the funeral of his wife, Arethe Daflos, known as Rita, was held. He was buried, in a simple casket, at the Heroes Acre at Johannesburg’s West Park Cemetery.

Speaking at the funeral service, Moseneke said the legal fraternity and the judiciary mourned the passing of Bizos.

‘Our profession, the bar and the bench, are in mourning and yet all of us are doffing our hats in deep and abiding respects as we mark the departure of one of our very finest,” he said.

Moseneke, a mentee who shared special moments with Bizos described him as a remarkable human being who deeply cared for others. “I am deeply proud that I lived so close to your life,” he said.

Moseneke said he hoped that all young lawyers in South Africa would draw and drink from the eternal fountain of high values that Bizos shared with the late Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson. “Your life has to remind all new lawyers and indeed all young people of what it is to live fully, to live vigorously, to live with principle, to live well and mainly for others,” he said

He also traced his relationship with both Mandela and Bizos.

Moseneke said for many years Mandela sought his and Bizos’ joint advice on a whole range of matters. These included litigation against his erstwhile attorneys, his two of his children and his former wife. “He appointed us as joint executors to his will, the deceased estate. When I sought to visit Alexi at the house, I said I had hoped that you will be able to sign the final document that I had to file with the Master (of the High Court) to conclude the estate of Tata Madiba Mandela.  We are both trustees of the family trust and are obliged to look after Mr Mandela’s affairs and beneficiaries to his trust. In a sense, Tata Mandela joined me and Tata Bizos at the hip,’ Moseneke said.

An ex-political prisoner himself, Mosenekie said his 10-year sentence on Robben Island, coincided with Mandela’s time there and Bizos’ frequent visits to his famous client and friend. He however met Bizos only after release and later qualified as an attorney, an advocate and became his chief and primary junior in several prominent court cases.

Moseneke said: “After his release, Mandela asked Uncle Bizos and Pius Langa, who later became chief justice and me to defend his wife Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela Mandela in the so-called Stompie charges. I had to live and I did, with great privilege, with Uncle Bizos for six months as we defended Comrade Nomzamo. 

“When it was not at all fashionable, particularly for white South Africans, George Bizos chose the side of the powerless, of the tormented and of the oppressed. He chose the side of the village of Batlhaping near Zeerust, who were facing apartheid eviction. And he tells marvelous stories about his interaction with the chief of Batlhaping. He resisted evictions with and for them. He chose the side of Neil Agett, didn’t he? The side of Ahmed Timol in the inquiry into the mysterious and callous deaths in police custody. He was there for the family of Steve Bantu Biko family in they searched for circumstances of Bantu’s murder in police cells. And so too into the death of the Cradock Four who disappeared in police hands with no trace whatsoever. 

“In happier times with Uncle Bizos, we got onto a boat that ferried me to go to Robben Island, this time to go and appear for our colleagues and comrades who were on hunger strike on Robben Island, who demanded to be released immediately after the Codesa agreement had been signed. At the TRC hearing, he batted for several victims of the inhumane apartheid system. As though he had done enough, George Bizos was there for the families of the miners who were killed at Marikana.”

Bizos’ grandson Nicholas, paid a warm tribute: “Every turn that Papou made, every weave of the tapestry that was his life was done with the honest intention of making things better, of doing something right, something to correct an injustice or help relief someone’s suffering. There was never selfishness, arrogance or fame as his goal. Guided by the principles of fairness, equality and justice, Papou aimed at changing lives through his knowledge of the law. Materialism was never a part of his life. His beginnings were humble, his middle was humble and he was humble at the end. The impact that he had was always through his actions or his words, never through what he owned or accumulated. Injustice hurt him. It’s what drove him to who he was. He never wanted anyone to practice hegemony over another over some immutable characteristic. He saw humanity in all and gave his lifetime to protecting this humanity.”

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, in paying a tribute to Bizos said a giant tree has fallen. 

Ramaphosa said Bizos’ past nourished his passion to help those who suffered injustice. “He knew the pain of exile of being stateless and rootless. There can be no doubt that his personal background influenced and nourished the great well of empathy, of compassion and as well as solidarity that drove George in the practice of law. He was, in his own words, a lover of freedom. The love of freedom would put him on an inevitable collision course with the apartheid state. He was destined to be an activist lawyer and champion of the liberation struggle,” Ramaphosa said.

Archbishop Damaskinos of Johannesburg and Pretoria for the Greek Orthodox Church, said Bizos was both a luminary and a beacon of hope for the South African Hellenic society.