Maverick Citizen


How George Bizos wants you to honour him

George Bizos proudly shows off his beloved vegetable garden. (Photo: Jason Brickhill)

Much has been said about the devastation of apartheid. And even more is written on how its naked brutality radicalised African responses to it. For much of the early years of its existence, the ANC – the prime liberation organisation – had focused on petitions, marches, delegations. All civil. All optimistic. All respectful. One day the whites-only Parliament will realise the error of its ways and change, it was hoped.

But when apartheid came in 1948 South Africa would change dramatically. DF Malan and his numerous successors – JG Strijdom, HF Verwoerd, JB Vorster – all believed not only in white supremacy, but in black subjugation. And they went about its enforcement, ruthlessly. The 1950s were the days of the Group Areas Act, the Population Registration Act, the Separate Amenities Act – statutes that framed grand apartheid. Cities had to be cleansed of the “black menace”. Rights of Africans to the lands of the urban areas were not only restricted, but they were erased, obliterated. Africans would be “temporary sojourners” in the urban centres of their birth.

This period radicalised the black youth of the time. Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma, the cerebral, solid but amiable president of the ANC, had been pushed out of the ANC leadership by the ANC Youth League of Walter Sisulu, Ashby Mda and Anton Lembede for his belief in “decorous protest”. With Xuma gone, the age of Nelson Mandela’s ANC had begun. It would reject “delegations and telegrams”. What it wanted was confrontation with the regime, to match it on the streets, in homes, everywhere it manifested itself. If necessary, through armed struggle.

This period not only radicalised black youth; some white youth, too, were radicalised. One of them was a young George Bizos, from 1949 a student of law at the white Wits University, where Nelson Mandela and Arthur Chaskalson were also law students. George had managed to secure university entrance a few short years after arriving in South Africa from Greece as a child refugee fleeing Nazi occupation, unable to speak English. He landed in a South Africa that was soon to exchange the horrors of World War 2 for the crime against humanity of apartheid.

George’s life experience and great heart led him instinctively to side with the oppressed and ally with those resisting injustice. This began in student politics, where George and Arthur and a few others resisted the exclusion of black students from a law faculty event, and George took on the Wits establishment on several fronts as a student leader. George and Mandela’s lives diverged at this time, as he would complete his Wits law degree at Wits while Mandela suffered the humiliating experience of exclusion, ostensibly on academic grounds.

They soon met again, one as attorney and the other as counsel in the trenches of the anti-apartheid struggle. George would develop – in his own words – a 65-year friendship with Mandela, with the latter becoming prisoner, president and statesman, while George remained trusted counsel to Mandela, on the political and personal fronts. 

George Bizos, of course, used law as an instrument in the struggle against apartheid. This meant providing legal representation to victims of racist criminal prosecutions, forced removals and persecution at the hands of the apartheid state. But it also meant taking on cases intended to dismantle segregation of urban areas, blunting the power of the police when taking witness statements and introducing fair administrative procedures in the vastly expanding administrative state.    

As the consummate trial lawyer, George had an instinctive gift for reading people and connecting with them. At the heart of this was his empathy. When he led his own clients as witnesses, his heart was with them as they shared their stories. When he cross-examined police who had imprisoned, tortured or killed, his questions were aflame, demanding truth and simple human justice for that freedom fighter, activist or striking miner, and for their families. Though he was a master of the rules of evidence and courtroom craft, this was never what it was about for him. While theatrical at times, he was by no means a showman. The theatre of the courtroom was necessary because courts were the only places where the police – endowed with limitless powers by the state – could be made to answer, squirm, confess. George used this space, determinedly. 

George stood against injustice and oppression despite the personal and professional consequences for him. For years during apartheid, he was unable to return to Greece to visit his mother and family because he knew the government would not allow him to return. He took silk (senior counsel status) late in his career because of the political work that he did. At the Bar, he was a strong ally in the struggle for the admission of black advocates, beginning with Duma Nokwe, with whom George shared chambers. Though celebrated by the profession and country after liberation, he was a pariah to the white establishment in government and the legal profession for most of his professional life. In court, he faced open hostility from apartheid security police, prosecutors, magistrates and judges. He never flinched. The Delmas accused nicknamed him ‘Matla a Tlou’ (strength of an elephant).

These stories – of courage in adversity, friendship in the midst of racism and oppression, sacrifice amid plenty – inspired us to choose the path of law and offered us a model for how to aspire to be, as human rights lawyers. George was a central pillar representing the inspiration and aspiration of all young lawyers with an interest in human rights. We spent time with George at the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) where he served for more than 25 distinguished years as in-house senior counsel – a position to which he had been recruited by Arthur Chaskalson.

It was during the Rivonia Trial of Mandela and the rest of the ANC leadership that George had also been reunited with Arthur Chaskalson, as junior members of the defence team led by Bram Fischer. George and Arthur’s own friendship deepened into a lifelong one. As George would tell it, Arthur would do the law and he would do the facts, an arrangement that they repeated in the Delmas trial. In their final years until Arthur’s death, George and Arthur were reunited at the LRC, as Arthur would spend a day each week at the Johannesburg offices after his retirement from the Bench. It was at lunch with Arthur and George in the Johannesburg CBD or the LRC kitchen that we probably learnt more than at any other time during our years at the LRC – about law and life, friendship and solidarity, politics and purpose. It was there that George and Arthur shared stories of their past, and worries for the future, but also just enjoyed each other’s friendship. These were lighter times, too.

In his role at the LRC, George was a colleague and friend, mentor and teacher. Mainly through his wisdom, coming from years of trial and error. Sometimes by instinct. Although we both occupied leadership roles at the Constitutional Litigation Unit (CLU) of the LRC (at different times), it was to George that we turned for advice. He was, of course, ungovernable in all the best ways, but was the heart and wisdom that bound the LRC together. At the end of a long CLU meeting or even an LRC AGM in which we had to get through many reports on current cases, planning and budgets, George would invariably raise a new matter: someone had spoken to him, or he had read in the newspaper, about the denial of rights to some person or community, and he strongly felt we needed to intervene. In his later years, ever determined to fight on, he increasingly relied on us all and it was our privilege to support and care for him in the workplace. Young lawyers and researchers in the LRC would be asked to help him with research for a case or a speech, and in the process he passed on so much of his history and values to us.

It was George who, immediately upon hearing the awful news of the killing of mineworkers at Marikana on the radio at work, marshalled LRC lawyers to get to the scene, secure independent pathologists and ensure that families were assisted. George was devastated and furious that this massacre had happened, especially in a democratic South Africa. In the commission, he led the LRC team and was a beacon for truth-seeking and the demand for justice. Several family members of murdered mine workers said that he made them feel heard. 

One of George’s most persistent refrains in the last decade was “don’t blame the Constitution”. He shared the pain and despair of South Africans at the despicable inequality and suffering of the majority of our people and the slow pace of change. He complained often, and vocally, of corruption and the brokenness of parts of government, including in land reform, of racial injustice and gender-based violence. However, he was emphatic in his view that the Constitution is not to blame. 

Even after more than half a century of struggle through law, much of the work that George and others had done remains unfinished. George was still anxious in his final years to see justice for the victims of Marikana, accountability for unpunished apartheid murders of people like Ahmed Timol and so many more, and above all to see much greater progress in realising the constitutional vision of a more equal society, for which he had fought. These tasks now fall on all of us left behind. On several occasions in recent years, George issued a challenge at public events. In a lecture titled The Road to Freedom, as part of the Freedom Month Lecture Series at his own Wits University, on 21 April 2016, he put it like this:

“The challenge is this: I want you to think of one way in which you can advance the values of our Constitution in your community. Keep track of it; record your progress; and whenever you believe you have achieved what you set out to do, challenge yourself to do something more. Do that in the name of our Constitution and the aims and values that underpin it, and be unrelenting in your pursuit of this.” 

Much remains to be done. Our country is now the most unequal in the world by some measures. Many need access to water, sanitation and houses. Many are without food and healthcare. For many, quality education is a distant dream. But a fortunate few relish the wealth of this country by reason of their white privilege inherited from apartheid and newer forms of privilege taking hold in a capitalist society. Some have accumulated vast riches in a short period of 25 years. The Constitution was intended as a platform for sustained, but radical socioeconomic change. George Bizos’ life was about empathy with others, the source of his courage. His vision of the Constitution was not as a balm for racism and inequality, but a tool for their “unrelenting” confrontation. Honouring his life means fighting for his ideals. Daily. Tangibly. Unrelentingly. 

If we do not use the Constitution to confront racism, patriarchy, inequality, corruption and the daily injustices so many face, we risk squandering the possibility of building the society that George envisioned in the Constitution and to which he devoted his life. We risk losing the kindness and humanity that he embodied. George would not have it so.

Hamba kahle, George. DM/MC

Tembeka Ngcukaitobi is a senior advocate at the Johannesburg Bar, and a former colleague of Bizos at the LRC. Jason Brickhill is an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar and doctoral student and tutor at the University of Oxford, and a former colleague of Bizos at the LRC.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thank you so very much for this moving tribute to a great man, who certainly is an exemplar for so many other lawyers. We certainly need to focus intensely on advancing the Constitution, and seeking to realise the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights. I will try to review this article from time to time, thanks!

  • John Cartwright says:

    A fine and understanding tribute from two of his worthy successors.

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