John Vorster turned to his counsel. “George Bizos is on a short rope.” During his rule as the prime minister of apartheid South Africa, a statement of this nature was not a lightly-dusted metaphor for reining in dissent. It was more often the precursor to harassment, incarceration and the threat of the gallows. But the word delivered from Vorster’s tower did little to deter the lawman. Bizos straightened his tie and showed up in court, steadfast in exposing the state’s abuses and acting as defence for those suffering from the political injustices of the time.
Born in Greece in 1928, Bizos still speaks with a light accent, maintaining a calm Mediterranean sensibility that belies the enormity of his life and achievements. By the time of his 13th birthday, Greece was in the grip of the advancing Nazi army. Within the allied retreat, seven New Zealand soldiers took refuge in his village. Bizos’s father bundled the soldiers, and his young son, onto a small boat and set sail for Crete. A rescue mission guided by blind faith, Crete was already under fire.
Then, in a stroke of grace, the craft was intercepted by an allied warship. Next stop for the party was Egypt, before being shipped to Durban. Little George Bizos found himself on African soil with a sparse education and no command of the local language. The boy was put to work in a grocery store.
Cecilia Feinstein, a teacher from Jeppe High School, discovered Bizos and was appalled to discover that he had not received any schooling in three years. She had him enrolled and provided extra lessons. Years later, on receiving the first of many honorary doctorates, Bizos asked Feinstein to attend the ceremony. She took up a front-row seat and received a standing ovation for creating opportunity and unlocking the potential of the man.
It was as at The University of the Witwatersrand that Bizos first pushed to the front of the group and presented himself as an opponent of injustice. The National Party was on a campaign to restrict ‘open universities’ that accepted black students. The authorities noted that the protests against the campaign were being incited by ‘a bunch of leftists’. The campus defiance squared up to authority and Bizos spoke: “If wanting my black fellow students to be treated equally makes me a leftist, I am proud to be one.”
The statement made headlines and prompted the security police to open a docket. Bizos was marked. His citizenship was denied in a letter that described him as ‘not fit and proper to become a South African’. The ban lasted over 30 years. “There comes a time in the life of all people when you either succumb or you fight,” he says of joining the liberation effort. The years have given him space to adopt a reflective tone when speaking about those days, to step back from the urgency of the moment and consider the events of that time.
For Bizos the choice was simple. The 1950s found a band of lawyers stepping up to the bench to eloquently chisel at the foundation of oppression. Bizos stood shoulder-to-shoulder with men like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Joel Joffe and Sydney Kentridge. At the time, when the simmer of discontent was beginning to boil and shift the lid of oppression, lawmen represented the frontline of resistance to the South African judicial system.
Between 1954 and ’63 the young advocate Bizos was the go-to man for defence in political trials. His clients were those breaking banning orders, disobeying the pass laws and committing innumerable other misdemeanours against the segregation act. The newly-elected government was using the law to enforce oppression and suppress opposition; Bizos had his gloves raised.
Bizos’s track record made him an obvious choice as a member of the 1963 Rivonia Trial defence team led by Bram Fischer. The first meeting between Mandela and his legal team set a sombre tone for the upcoming trial. “They brought him to us dressed in prison clothes,” Bizos says. “We had to be frank, the accused didn’t know what the newspapers were saying, they didn’t know what to expect, and they didn’t know what the charges would be. We had to tell them that the atmosphere was grave and that the state was going to call for a death sentence.”
The accused had no doubt as to what their defence was going to be – they refused to deny their participation in the political struggle. It was the season of retaliation. “They decided to use this trial as a forum to declare what they stood for, what they demanded. This became the defence,” Bizos says.
“Walter Sisulu made it quite clear, ‘Our defence is not going to be one of denial, but of a counter attack.’ It was decided that Nelson Mandela would make a statement from the dock. Our goal was to use the statement to condemn the action of the apartheid state, turning the accused into the accusers.”
Bizos met with Mandela in a dark cell reserved for those about to appear in court. The walls were covered with the prayers and threats of men facing the death sentence. Mandela and his co-accused were prepared to accept the worst.
Bizos shared his opinion, “I said, you know this last paragraph, the one that declares that you are prepared to die, it may become counterproductive. I don’t think that the occasion is appropriate to say, in an unqualified way, that you are prepared to die. You will be accused of challenging the authority, you will be accused of seeking martyrdom.”
Mandela resisted the advice. He was determined to voice his conviction before the court. Bizos offered an alternative, “Add the words ‘if needs be’ before the words ‘I am prepared to die’.” Mandela agreed. He marked the insert in pen. From this moment on, the struggle would be led from the cells of Robben Island.
After the Rivonia trial Bizos upheld his selfless effort as defence in political trials. He acted as counsel at the inquests into deaths in detention, including those of Steve Biko and Achmed Timol. He represented the accused in the Delmas treason trial and appeared on behalf of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at a time when the press was fueling volatile hype. Political trials were public facing and used by the media to stir outrage.
From as early as 1988, a broad group of dedicated academics, legal professionals and ANC members began to draft the new bill of rights. The mission was to write a constitution that was representative of the South African people as a whole – not a simple task by any measure.
“I don’t think we did a bad job,” Bizos says. “We went from cheap hotel to cheap hotel throughout the country. People gathered and spoke and we determined what sort of constitution we required and what sort of presidency was necessary. We got the views of the people as a whole.”
He allows himself a smile and a laugh, an acknowledgement of that time’s significance: the group ended up crafting a constitution that set a new benchmark for liberal democracy, that played a huge role in ensuring a peaceful transition to democracy.
Soon after his release, Mandela attended a constitutional committee meeting and thanked those who took up the responsibility of charting the new constitution. “You know, we were quite cheeky,” Bizos smiles. “Us contributing to the bill of rights. You know, it’s a big step for a country.”
While the country was taking steps, Bizos was taking leaps in contribution. He was not among the dignitaries present on the day Mandela was released from prison, he was preparing for a trial. Tireless in his efforts to help forge a free and fair transition, his work has spanned far into post apartheid South Africa. He served to institute judicial reform and was representative counsel during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“I have lived through the joys and sorrows of the South African people. That’s what really binds you to a country. I’ve done that. I was able to make a small contribution towards liberty coming to the people of South Africa.”
A judge once asked Bizos if he would like to sit down while presenting a case. His response was that the day he had to sit down was the day he would retire. The day for retirement has come, but Bizos has not taken his seat. Bizos is known to be a keen gardener – and he dedicated his life to weeding this country’s social and judicial system. Today he has turned his attention to his own garden. George Bizos is pleased to announce that his olive tree is finally bearing fruit.