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GEORGE Bizos arrived in Durban, South Africa, as refugee, aged 13, after his father had helped soldiers escape Nazi camps. He went on to play a massive role in the courts in helping anti-apartheid activits escape the death penalty as well as the full brutality of apartheid.

Today, South Africans from walks of life are celebrating the life and times of Bizos, who passed on aged 92, of natural causes. 

South Africans of all ages and generations have paid emotionals tributes to Bizos, a man who defended ordinary people, the country’s political royalty, became a respected legal powerhouse and yet remained humble and declined appointments to higher office. Law was his calling and serving ordinary people, his mission.

Bizos defended Nelson Mandela, his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu and many other political activists in apartheid courts.

President Cyril Ramaphosa led South Africans in paying tribute to a man, who not only defended liberation activists against the might of the apartheid government’s machinery but played a massive role in the crafting of South Africa’s constitution, the foundation of its democracy.

“I spoke to his son Alexi and he told me that his father was facing great difficulties. I asked if he was comfortable and he said yes. Bizos is one of those lawyers who contributed immensely to the attainment of our democracy. He worked very closely with Nelson Mandela, Arthur Chaskalson and many others. We extend our condolences to his family,” Ramaphosa said.

Struggle veteran Barbara Hogan, whom Bizos defended when she was put on trial by the apartheid government for terrorism, spoke fondly on TV about Bizos. So did Snuki Zikalala, chairperson of the ANC Veteran’s League, who Bizos defended when he was an 18 year-old political activist.

The Kathrada Foundation, which looks after the legacy of one of Bizos’ close friends, the late struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada, said he would be remembered for his contribution to freedom and commitment to the protection of human rights.

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The Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Sello Hatang said:  “Ntate Bizos was always available to support our events and to lend an ear to our challenges. He became like a well-loved uncle to us. We were in awe of him, yet he always engaged us with humility, affection, and respect.”

Hatang said the friendship between him and Mandela spanned more than seven decades and was legendary. In the last years of Mandela’s life, they were often to be found together, just catching up, sharing memories, or heading off on car rides to see, one more time, places of significance in their life journeys. Whenever he was asked to talk about Bizos, Mandela turned to words of gratitude. As he once said: “I don’t think words can sufficiently express our indebtedness to men and women like George Bizos.”

Hatang said the two of them had met as law students at the University of the Witwatersrand soon after Mandela arrived in Johannesburg from the Eastern Cape in 1941. While Mandela did not finish his degree then, he practiced as an attorney while becoming an activist in ANC and other structures. Bizos went on to become an advocate, and Mandela would often brief him in cases he was defending. As the anti-apartheid struggle intensified through the 1950s, Bizos was often called upon to defend Mandela in court. And in the 1963-4 Rivonia Trial, Bizos was a member of the defence team. “He was really devoted to the cause,” Mandela said of Bizos. “When he appeared for us, he did not do so as a man who is appearing for strangers, he did so as his contribution to a great cause to which we were all committed.”

Bizos played a critical role through the years of Mandela’s incarceration, both professionally and as a family friend. Speaking a couple of years after his release from prison, Mandela said that Bizos had “behaved like a brother” to him while he was in jail.  “He looked after my family, after my children, advised my children and he made me feel that although I’m in prison, my affairs are being looked after by a man I know and I trust.” Bizos was also a vital conduit of information between Mandela and the external ANC leadership.

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“At a moment like this,” Hatang said, “we remember Madiba and a whole generation of South Africans who endured much and achieved more. We owe it to them to keep walking that long walk to freedom.”

Social justice activist and former Public Protector Professor Thuli Madonsela said: “He fought a good fight in pursuit of a Just South Africa that belongs to all who live in it. Sad to see this resolute social justice and integrity crusader go to join Madiba and his other compatriots. Heartfelt Condolences to the family, friends and colleagues.”

According to SA HistoryOnline, Bizos was born in 1927 in Kirani, Greece. In 1941 he arrived in South Africa as a World War II refugee together with his father. He was then thirteen years old. Their first place to arrive was Durban and later moved to Johannesburg where their entry was made simple and smooth by the presence of other Greek community members. While in Johannesburg he enrolled for a law degree with the University of Witwatersrand.

In 1950 he completed his law degree at the University of Witwatersrand. In 1954 he was admitted to the Johannesburg Bar. He served as an Advocate in Johannesburg until 1990 when he worked as a counsel to 40 lawyers at the Legal Resources Centre and the Constitutional Litigation Unit. During the Apartheid years Bizos dedicated his working life to fight for the basic Human Rights. After the collapse of the Apartheid he turned his fight into ensuring that all South Africans equally enjoy those rights enshrined and guaranteed by the constitution.

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In his legal career he represented a lot of political activists in high profile political trials. He represented Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela in both Treason and Rivonia Trial. Apart from Mandela he appeared in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission representing families of killed heroes of our liberation struggle. He represented the families of Steve Bantu Biko, Chris Hani and the Cradock Four (Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlawuli).

In the TRC he blocked amnesty applications made by the perpetrators of these murders. In 1989 he published a book called No one to blame? In pursuit of Justice in South Africa.

In 2004 Bizos represented Morgan Tsvangirai, president of the main opposition party (Movement for Democratic Change) in Zimbabwe who was charged with high Treason by the Zimbabwean government. When Bizos is not in the courtroom he would spend his time in vegetable gardens. 

Bizos received quite a number of awards for the splendid job he performed during his legal career. He also occupied high positions in different institutions. On 25 October 2004 he received the International Bar Association’s (IBA) prestigious Bernard Simons Memorial Award at Auckland. On 3 November 2004 he received the annual Sydney and Felicia Kentridge Award, from the General Council of the Bar.

He lived in Johannesburg and married with three sons.

Other Achievements and Positions held by Bizos.

  • 1979 – 1993 – acted as defence counsel in numerous high profile political trials, founding member of the National Council of Lawyers for Human Rights.
  • 1982 – 1994 – Senior Counsel at the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg in the Constitutional Unit; member of the Board of Trustees of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwatersrand.
  • 1985 – 1993 – Judge of the Court of Appeal in Botswana
  • 1994 – Honorary Member of the Athens Bar
  • 1990 – 1994 – Member of the ANC’s Legal and Constitutional

By The African Mirror