Veteran human rights lawyer and anti-apartheid activist George Bizos is the recipient of the inaugural George Bizos Human Rights Award, inaugurated by the Legal Resources Centre. This is his prepared speech, from which he sometimes strayed during its delivery. By GEORGE BIZOS.
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to attend this event. I’m honoured and humbled to see so many familiar faces among this crowd, along with a few new faces. I know my reputation when it comes to speaking and I’ve been told to keep this brief…. I’ll try my best.
In its Preamble, the Constitution of South Africa declares that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”.
I was not born in South Africa but in Greece in 1927. I came to South Africa as a refugee during the Nazi Occupation of Greece. My father and I and seven Allied soldiers from New Zealand left in the hope of initially reaching Crete; However, Crete was busy falling to Nazi Germany. Fortunately, we crossed the path of 16 British warships speeding to Crete to evacuate the Allied and Greek soldiers defending it. We were picked up and then taken to Alexandria, Egypt.
My father was placed in a refugee camp in Cairo. I was separated from him and taken to an orphanage in Alexandria by the Secretary of the Hellenic Republic in Alexandria. After three months, my father and I, together with over 140 odd Greek refugees, were removed from Egypt, on the second largest French ship “The Isle de France”, together with ill Allied soldiers and 1,500 Italian prisoners of war, from Port Suez to Durban.
Arriving in Durban, from the deck I saw black men pulling heavy rickshaws; not wearing shoes, wearing unclean vests, and short trousers. As young as I may have been, I thought that we may have come to the wrong country.
From the ship, we boarded a train to come to Johannesburg. We did not get off at the large and prestigious train station in the centre of Johannesburg but a small station beyond it where members of the Greek community, with their cars, had gathered to take us to hotels nearby the main station. I, having nothing much to do, went to see the fast trains come and go. There, I heard from one of the English-speaking Greek refugees that the reason why we did not debark at the main station was because there was a group of Afrikaners protesting that Smuts, the then Prime Minister, was bringing the rubbish of Europe to South Africa.
My father’s and my photographs were published in The Sunday Times shortly after our arrival, describing my father’s assistance to the seven New Zealand soldiers. I didn’t initially go to school but instead I worked as a shop assistant for almost four years.
I served a woman who looked at me and looked again and asked me if I was the boy whose picture was in the paper. I said yes. She asked me what school I went to. When I told her that I was not at school she screamed at the boss, “How dare you employ a boy that ought to be in school!”
She said she was a schoolteacher at Malvern Junior High School and that she would come and pick me up on Monday morning and would take me to her school. Her name was Cecilia Feinstein. Even though I had passed Standard 6 in a high school in Greece, I had to repeat Standard 6 in South Africa. I passed, was promoted to Standard 7, and I passed that. I then attended Athlone High.
A civil war in Greece had just broken out when I started at Athlone high. The Afrikaans teacher, Mnr. Scheepers, said to me that he saw in the papers that the children of Greece were dying of starvation.
I answered, “I have also seen that, sir.”
He asked me, “You look well fed. Don’t you think that you are eating other people’s food?”
I said, “Sir, my father pays for the food that I eat and I hope that one day I may make a contribution.”
He loudly said, “Not only do we feed you. We have made you clever.”
A 15-year-old, Solomon, jumped up and said, “Sir, you either apologise to Bizos for what you said or I’m going to go to the headmaster to report you. His response was “Uggh man. You can’t take a joke.” None of the class laughed.
Though these experiences happened over 70 years ago, these stories will feel familiar to modern ears. Around the world and even domestically, we have seen a sharp rise in violent, hostile rhetoric and actions against refugees and immigrants. We are quick to minimise the important contributions made by those who are foreign born to the arts, to finance and industry, to law, and to the very fabric of our societies. It seems all too often that we are quick to forget our shared humanity.
I want to remind us today that human rights don’t stop at the border. Human rights aren’t just reserved for citizens of a particular country but rather that they are universal. I caution us to avoid the trap of xenophobia, of authoritarianism that is animating many movements and governments around the world. Given our history and the struggle for liberation, South Africa should strive to serve as a shining example of a country that has a deeply entrenched culture of human rights.
These things do not happen overnight and many, if not all, in this room can attest to the continued struggle that is needed to complete this project. For many of us here, this struggle has been and will continue to be a lifelong endeavour, yet, as we know, it is an important and meaningful struggle. I encourage everyone here to continually commit themselves to strengthening democracy, fostering a culture of social justice, and striving for the full realisation of human rights for all.
Thank you for this award.
I’d like to close with the following, which I have quoted elsewhere:
“From its inception, the ANC made it clear that it did not regard whites as its enemy. It knocked on the doors of successive white governments for generations without receiving any response and was prepared to negotiate decades before the white government agreed to do so. It would do Nelson’s critics well to consider the preamble of our Constitution:
We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to –
Photo: Advocate George Bizos (R), legal adviser to former South African President Nelson Mandela, speaks to the media as he leaves the Johannesburg High Court in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday 31 May 2005. EPA/JON HRUSA
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