Tribute

George Bizos was as much a master tactician as he was a highly skilled defence lawyer

By Glenn Moss 10 September 2020

George Bizos’ mission was to protect clients charged with political offences as far as possible, but always advising them not to compromise their beliefs, organisations and principles in an effort to limit the likely jail sentences. 

As a principled and ethical advocate, George Bizos would not collaborate in fabrication. I remember him pointing out to me that if those with morals facilitated lies, what chance could there ever be for a more ethical legal system in the fullness of time.

George always reminded clients that, if found guilty and sent to prison, they would be serving their sentences with the highest levels of political leadership. Opportunistic compromising of beliefs and principles, or lying about core values and actions in an effort to lessen jail time, might render relations with other political prisoners very difficult.

That was the tactical balance George helped his clients negotiate. Weaken the prosecution’s case where possible. Limit the damage to the accused without unnecessary compromise. In those rare cases where acquittal might be possible, pursue that with energy and rigour.

And in the many inquests into deaths of political detainees, George always knew that the chances of a finding that torture was a common part of security police interrogation techniques were limited, partly because of the type of magistrates who routinely heard inquests into political deaths. But George was a masterful tactician in extracting the maximum damage that could be inflicted on security police and those who collaborated in the system of long-term interrogative detention without trial.

This he would do by persistent, dogged and sometimes brutal cross-examination of police and other state witnesses. It is, indeed, his ferocious cross-examination skills for which George will be particularly well remembered.

During the year-long Nusas trial of 1976, where I was privileged to be represented by a legal team which included George, Denis Kuny, Raymond Tucker and Geoff Budlender, and led by Arthur Chaskalson, I was often witness to George’s fine combination of integrity and tactical skill.

As described in my book The New Radicals, George had travelled to Robben Island to consult with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki on some issues of ANC history and tactics which had arisen in the Nusas trial. Although not central to the trial, this did provide George with an opportunity to visit three of his Rivonia trial clients. 

As George describes in his autobiography, Odyssey to Freedom, “The three were willing to be called as witnesses for the defence and greatly admired the dedication of the young people on trial. I was to thank them for risking their freedom to call for the release of political prisoners”.

Mandela explained to George that a number of Robben Island prisoners were suffering from low morale. Many had been in jail for 10 years and they feared they were being forgotten. Suddenly, a group of young white students were running a national campaign calling for their release and integration into a political process. This provided an important boost to flagging spirits.

A fierce debate ensued among the defence team and the accused about whether to accept Mandela’s offer to testify. The defence lawyers properly advised us that bringing Mandela to court in Johannesburg might prejudice our chances of acquittal, or even provoke stiffer sentences in the event of being found guilty. The whole defence team, including George, was at pains to point out that calling Mandela as a witness might prejudice us, but that it was our tactical decision, not a legal determination. And George, ever the strategist, reminded us that we would be subjecting Mandela to cross-examination by the state, which could be problematic for him and the ANC.

It fell to George to prepare me to give evidence in my defence. Over a period of six weeks, we met over many nights at his home, often after long and tedious days in court. I do not think I was an easy client, tending to default into debates over political theory and strategy, rather than preparing the evidence I would deliver. On one occasion, we differed strongly about whether I would describe myself as a democratic socialist or a social democrat – or even a radical liberal. George advised that it might be a bridge too far for the presiding officer to accept the careful distinctions I wanted to draw between communism, socialism, democratic socialism, social democracy and liberal radicalism, but left the choice to me. In the event, I do not think the prosecution asked me that question, to everyone’s relief.

Twenty years after our acquittal in the Nusas trial, George reminded the Nusas 5 that Mandela – now president of South Africa – had often reiterated how important the Nusas campaign to release all political prisoners had been, and that one day he wanted to thank the leaders of it. And so it came to be that, one hot December day in 1996, Mandela was guest of honour at a lunch at my home, together with others who had been imprisoned at the time, or whose close family members had been jailed.

It was George who secured Mandela’s presence at this gathering. He did not easily forget his clients or his friends – just as we will always remember him. DM

Glenn Moss was a student leader at Wits University in the 1970s. He was detained under the Terrorism Act and charged under security legislation as the first accused in the year-long Nusas trial of 1976. He has worked as a publisher, editor, paralegal and long-term consultant to Statistics South Africa.

 

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  • Wonderful tribute, Glenn, to a South African giant and icon. (You will remember me as “Ernest” those days. I became one of Nevelle Curtis’ Vice-Presidents – NusWel – after he restructured the organisation).

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