by Sir Nick Stadlen, London, 2020

With the recent deaths of Denis Goldberg, Andrew Mlangeni and George Bizos, three of the surviving heroes of the Rivonia trial have passed away, leaving Denis Kuny as the last surviving lawyer. My film on the Rivonia trialists, Life Is Wonderful: Mandela’s Unsung Heroes, tells the story of the remarkable camaraderie between Nelson Mandela, his co-defendants and their legal team at the Rivonia trial in 1963/64 and sheds light on some of their individual stories. Their backgrounds and individual life journeys were of course different, in some cases very different. Some were black, some were white, one was Indian. Some were comfortably off, some came from disadvantaged backgrounds. What united them were certain qualities which ran through their beings like a stick of Brighton Rock: integrity, courage, total commitment to opposing apartheid, and a willingness to stand up and be counted, no matter what the cost to them and their families. At a time when South Africa is desperately in need of role models and heroes, the potential of the Rivonia heroes to inspire young South Africans, many of whom are disillusioned with politics after years of corruption, is timely and sorely needed.

George Bizos: A Life Well Lived

In the George Bizos Gallery of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg one of the exhibits is a series of videos on a permanent loop comprising tributes to and a speech made by him on what may or may not have been his eightieth birthday (see below). In it he said that it was the privilege of his life to have worked closely with great men. He was referring to Nelson Mandela, the many activists from the ANC and other opponents of apartheid whom he variously represented and collaborated with for more than 60 years and the brave lawyers who were prepared to represent them at great risk to themselves. The creation of an entire gallery in his honour in the museum dedicated to recording the history of the struggle against apartheid reflects the fact that he was himself one of the great heroes in the fight for justice and human rights in South Africa.

George was the son of Antonious, the mayor of Vasilitsi, a small Greek fishing village in the southern Peloponnese, and his wife Anastasia Tomaras. He came to play a key role in saving the life of Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia trial and ended up being the closest confidant for 65 years of arguably the most admired statesman of the 20th century. The strength of the bond between them was reflected in Mandela’s appointment of him as joint executor of his will together with Dikgang Moseneke, who spent 10 years on Robben Island with Mandela and later became Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa. At George’s memorial service Moseneke said that Mandela had joined George and him together at the hip. In the foreword to George’s autobiography, Odyssey to Freedom, Mandela wrote that his contribution towards entrenching the human rights that lie at the heart of South Africa’s constitutional values is impossible to overrate.

Although he played a decisive role in saving Mandela’s life in the Rivonia trial, George had a life story that is utterly gripping and went far beyond the trial. It is a story marked by two themes: the role of fate and chance and his human qualities of decency, compassion, commitment, hard work, courage and integrity. In May 1941,when George was 13 (or maybe 12), he persuaded his father to take him along when he bought a ramshackle boat and smuggled seven New Zealand soldiers who were hiding from the German army of occupation out to sea in the hope of taking them to join the British forces in Crete. George had overheard the village teacher telling his father that he would have to go back to the primary school for another year because the secondary school teacher had been conscripted. He didn’t fancy staying down with children six years younger than him, the white horse he rode to school with his father had died and he found his mother a stricter disciplinarian than his father. So, when his father said it was too dangerous for George to come along, he got his way by threatening to swim behind the boat if left behind. He would not see his mother again for 20 years. After evading the German searchlights under cover of darkness and bobbing around lost and seasick for two days in the stormy sea, they were spotted by HMS Kimberley, a ship in a Royal Navy convoy that was heading to Crete to evacuate allied troops before it was completely overrun by the Germans. Together with the New Zealand soldiers George and his father were rescued by the crew of the Kimberley who greeted them as heroes. They could not return to Greece, where they risked being shot, so after evacuating troops from Crete the Kimberley dropped them off in Alexandria.

He never saw the New Zealand soldiers again, but 70 years later, while in New Zealand to receive an honour from the International Bar Association, he was reunited with some of their families, in whose eyes his father and he still occupied the status of heroes. The wife of one soldier had handknitted him a jumper which never reached him. He was also shown a letter dictated by his father to the soldiers while they were in hiding: “We bought a sail-boat, we will go together, the boat is big enough, it needs a little repair and it will be ready soon, do not worry and don’t be afraid, we will take care of you until we leave together, all expenses of food, boat etc is ours, because we think it is our duty and obligation. Good luck, sincerely yours, Anthony Bizos.”

In Alexandria his father was offered the choice between emigrating to India or South Africa. He took the fateful decision to opt for South Africa, the second decision which dictated the course of George’s life. He decided to head for Johannesburg whose streets he had heard were paved with gold. First stop was Durban, where George witnessed something to which he later attributed the beginning of his radicalisation: grown black men pulling white men in rickshaws, in George’s words “doing work reserved for animals.” The train could not stop at the Johannesburg central railway station due to fears of demonstrations organised by Nazi sympathisers who accused Prime Minister Jan Smuts of bringing the vuilgoed (filth) of Europe into their country.

At his village primary school in Greece, George had been one of 140 children of different ages all in the same class. He later said the school was like those attended by the black children in the Soweto township. For his first two years in Johannesburg he did not go to school, spending his days working in a Greek cafe and behind the counter in a shop owned by a Greek family and he saw his future as a shop assistant, dreaming one day of owning his own corner shop. One morning a teacher, Cecilia Feinstein, entered the shop and asked him why he was not at school. George shrugged his shoulders. A week later she had enrolled him at her school and for the next few years she took him under her wing, teaching him English and protecting him from a sadistic woodwork teacher. He had his sights set on a medical career but failed the entrance exam to read medicine at the University of Witwatersrand (“Wits”) and instead in 1948 was admitted to a BA course with a view to doing a postgraduate course in law. This was another key turning point. Instead of Dr Bizos there was to be Advocate Bizos.

Adv George Bizos with Sir Nick Stadlen Courtesy Wits University

Wits was a liberal oasis at a time when the National Party was on the rise and following its election victory in 1948 introduced the policy of apartheid. At Wits, Bizos was further radicalised. When the law faculty refused to allow the handful of black law students to attend the annual law dinner, George, by then on the Students Law Council, threatened to withdraw the subsidy to pay for leading government lawyers to attend the dinner. He withstood pressure from the Dean, Professor Hahlo, who also famously refused to allow Nelson Mandela to take an exam necessary for admission into the Bar, thereby crushing his ambition to be the first black advocate in South Africa. In a subsequent election for the Law Students Council, at which George was criticised over the law dinner, the vote was swung in his favour by a young freshman, Arthur Chaskalson, who said: “For too long we have spoken about the university’s tradition. The correct question is: What is right and what is wrong?” It was the start of a friendship which saw them collaborating in the apartheid years in many political cases, including for the Legal Resources Centre, which was started in 1972 by Chaskalson, Felicia Kentridge (wife of Sydney) and Geoff Budlendar and later and, after Mandela’s release from prison, in the work to set up the new Constitution. Another lifelong friendship formed at Wits was with Duma Nokwe, a black law student who was forbidden from having dinner near the university. He would come to George’s room where they ordered takeaway meals. In due course Nokwe became the first black advocate in South Africa and when he was banned from taking tea in the Bar mess and unable to find chambers, George allowed him unofficially to share his room in chambers. Harold Wolpe, a future leading figure in uMkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, and Ismail Mahomed, later the first non-white Chief Justice of South Africa also became friends. Bram Fischer, later to lead George in the defence team at the Rivonia trial, was a part time lecturer in the law faculty.

Most importantly Wits is where George began his lifelong friendship with Nelson Mandela, having heard him address a meeting called by The Transvaal Indian Congress. Cue fate for a fourth time. Paradoxically, having forced Mandela to abandon his dream of practice at the Bar, it forced George to abandon his plan to become an attorney (solicitor) when he discovered that, to be registered as an articled clerk, he had to have South African citizenship, for which he was not yet eligible. So, he applied to go to the Bar. This required an oath of allegiance to the Queen. Joe Slovo, another friend from Wits, offered to move his application but worried that two waspish judges might look sceptically on such an oath coming from a stateless Greek supported by a communist Lithuanian Jew. Instead the application was moved by Rex Walsh, a senior advocate. By good fortune it was heard by two Afrikaner nationalist judges, Steyn and Rumpff. As former opponents of the British Empire, who may have had their fingers crossed behind their backs when they had sworn their judicial oath of allegiance to the Queen, they raised no objection and he was admitted to the Bar in 1954.

At the Bar George had two early successes. Led by the legendary Vernon Berrangé QC, some diligent research and out of the box thinking led to the acquittal on a technicality of Eli Weinberg, a leading anti-apartheid activist, on a charge of attending an ANC protest in breach of a banning order. In the second case he secured the acquittal of black protesters on an anti-pass law march who were accused of public violence on trumped up charges. The magistrate’s finding that the evidence of the police had been contradictory, improbable and unreliable was so rare that it prompted a long article in the Rand Daily Mail.

He then advised Mandela in a case in which he had appeared in front of a racist magistrate who had demanded proof that he was a qualified attorney and refused to let him speak. The case went on appeal and the magistrate was told informally but angrily to recuse himself by Justice De Wet, who seven years later presided over the Rivonia trial. From then on George became Mandela’s junior counsel of choice. His early years at the Bar consisted mostly of briefs from Tambo and Mandela, the first black firm of attorneys in South Africa, acting for black clients, often in cases under the notorious pass laws. Instructed by Mandela he appeared in many minor local courts, where his colleagues would not greet him and the police would harass him with fines for minor traffic infractions. Lunch was mostly sandwiches in George’s Morris Minor, a present from his father, as it was unlawful for a black attorney and a white advocate to eat in the same café or restaurant. There were only two restaurants in Johannesburg prepared to turn a blind eye to the apartheid restrictions – the Indian upstairs at Kapitans and the Chinese downstairs in the Little Swallow. They shared a love for the classics and a detestation of discrimination, oppression and injustice. As Moseneke said at his memorial service they were both outsiders, one a Greek refugee from Nazism, the other a citizen denigrated in the land of his birth whose career screeched to a halt due to racial profiling and his proclivity for robust activism.

Between 1952 and 1962 Mandela was a defendant in three important political cases: the Defiance Campaign trial in 1952, the five year Treason Trial from 1955 to1961, and the so called Black Man In a White Man’s Court trial in 1962, where Mandela defended himself on charges of inciting a strike and leaving South Africa without a passport. In the Defiance Campaign trial George, still a student, attended court to show solidarity with Mandela and the other accused. Although not briefed at the Treason Trial, he did unpaid research behind the scenes for Vernon Berrangé and hosted many evening meetings of Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo and other leading ANC defendants in his chambers, at which the talk was as much about politics as the case. George attended the first day of the Black Man In a White Man’s Court trial and saw Mandela, who arrived in full traditional Xhosa dress, including a jackal skin kaross and a beaded necklace in the black, green and gold colours of the ANC, ask for the recusal of the magistrate and announce that he would defend himself. Mandela was sentenced to five years. In an adjournment he said: “George, look after my family.”

The Rivonia Trial

The Rivonia trial was the most important trial in South African history. Mandela, together with Walter Sisulu, Thabo Mbeki, Kathy Kathrada, Denis Goldberg, Raymond Mhlaba, Rusty Bernstein, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, and Jimmy Kantor stood accused of conspiring to overthrow the apartheid regime by sabotage, a capital offence. The trial ran for eight months between October 1963 in June 1964. The defence team was the greatest ever assembled in a South African court. Led by Bram Fischer QC, it comprised three further advocates, Vernon Berrangé, George, and Arthur Chaskalson and the attorney Joel Joffe. Each brought to the task immense legal skills. In the case of the advocates they were forensic. In the case of Joel Joffe, they were organisational and strategic and extended to helping and acting for members of their families. Although only two of them, Fischer and Berrangé, were or had been active in the Communist Party, they were all implacably opposed to apartheid and shared the political aspirations of their clients. They fully respected and implemented, to the best of their ability, their clients’ decision, taken at the first meeting after they were released from detention without trial, to turn the case from a legal one to a political one in which apartheid would be put in the dock of world public opinion and in which they could inspire and raise the morale of their supporters in South Africa when most of their leaders were in jail or in exile. But unlike the clients, for whom their lives were of secondary importance, the lawyers were desperate and determined to avoid death sentences for people they regarded as people of great integrity and leadership.

Throughout the trial the lawyers had to juggle these two objectives, which from time to time conflicted with each other, and they managed brilliantly. They were prepared to use the court system to protect their clients’ lives and rights no matter what the cost to themselves. In George’s case the risk he was taking was not hypothetical. As they were preparing the defence an intermediary delivered a message from the prime minister. “Tell George: ‘Your rope is getting short.’” George took the threat seriously. He asked his brother to look after his family if he was arrested, but carried on. It was no idle threat. Albie Sachs, then an advocate representing anti-apartheid activists, was subjected to two periods of detention without trial and solitary confinement with no access to lawyers or family, and at one point after the trial Joel Joffe was tipped off by a journalist that he and Bram Fischer were going to be arrested by the Security police that night. He and his wife Vanetta stayed up all night waiting for the dawn knock on the door. In the end they came for Bram but not for Joel. All the lawyers were prepared to use the court system to protect the lives and rights of their clients no matter what the cost to themselves.

Over a period of eight months (more if you include the trial preparation) the lawyers formed a very close camaraderie with their clients and notwithstanding many moments of great tension and pathos, there were moments of great laughter and amusement. George contributed to both. When the prosecution refused to talk to the defence after Berrangé had called the much-despised chief prosecutor Percy Yutar ‘such a little man’, George said he would sort it out. Stretching out his arm at waist height, he reported back that he had told Yutar that Berrangé did not mean he was little little, but just small-minded, to which Yutar had responded: “Oh is that all, then that’s alright.”

George made three significant contributions to the success of the defence. Except in the case of Rusty Bernstein, that success was not a finding of not guilty, which for Mandela and most of the others was never a possibility, given that they refused to challenge the prosecution claims that they were responsible for the campaign of non-violent sabotage. The real issue in the case was whether they would be sentenced to death, an outcome for which the government had shamelessly agitated in the press before the trial and which in his conduct of the prosecution Percy Yutar, despite subsequent denials, sought to achieve. First, at the outset George persuaded Bram Fischer and the other lawyers that the best chance of avoiding death sentences was to play it long and expose the judge over a period of time to the character, decency, integrity and altruistic motives of the defendants, in the hope that the more he saw them as human beings the more difficult he would find it to pass death sentences.

Second, the defendants having decided that Mandela’s speech outlining the iniquities of the apartheid system should be made as a statement from the dock, thereby depriving Yutar of the ability to interrupt the flow by asking questions, which he would have been entitled to do had Mandela gone into the witness box, it was crucial that at least one of the senior defendants should go into the witness box and thus, by being exposed to cross-examination, enable the judge to give weight to the defendants’ denial that they had agreed to approve Operation Mayibuye, the plan for guerrilla warfare,a copy of which had been found by the police when they arrested most of the defendants in the raid on the Liliesleaf farm in the Johannesburg rural suburb of Rivonia. Arthur Chaskalson and Joel Joffe were very reluctant to let Walter Sisulu into the witness box. He had only a few years of primary school education and they feared that he would be no match for Yutar, who had the only PhD in the government legal service. George had crossed swords with Yutar before and was certain that he would not be able to resist taking Sisulu on on the political aims of the ANC, on which Sisulu, the Secretary General of the ANC, was the most authoritative expert. Bram Fischer was persuaded. Joel and George took a bet on the outcome, the loser to pay for the winner’s lunch for the rest of the trial. Over six days in the witness box Sisulu wiped the floor with Yutar. An hour into the evidence George felt a tug on his advocate’s gown and turned to hear Joel whisper: “Okay. You win the bet but I can’t afford to pay for all those lunches.” In due course the judge accepted the defence case that they had not approved Operation Mayibue. Without that finding he would have had no alternative but to pass a death sentence. The relevant chapter in Odyssey to Freedom is headed Never Bet Against A Greek.

Third, Mandela’s famous statement from the dock was written by hand by Mandela following discussions with George and the other defendants. It ended with the now famous peroration: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. It is an ideal for which I’m prepared to die.” George was appalled at what he thought would be seen by the judge as a clear challenge to hang all the defendants. He told Mandela the story of Socrates exercising his right to propose his own sentence. At his suggestion that he should be kept for the rest of his life at the public expense in the standard of living enjoyed by Olympic champions, the not inconsiderable minority on the jury who had voted for acquittal melted away and he was sentenced to death. Not a great precedent, said George. Although he could not persuade Mandela to take out altogether the invitation to the judge to hang them all, he did manage to persuade him to water it down by adding the words “if needs be”, without which Justice de Wet might have passed sentences of death rather than life.

At the end of the trial, Fischer presented George with a red bag to carry his wig and gown to court, with his initials woven in white, a tradition inherited from the English Bar when a QC wants to honour a junior barrister for his excellent contribution to a case. In the Bodleian library in Oxford is a copy of the telegram which George sent in reply, “As success is measured at the Bar our team cannot be said to have done very well. Eight life sentences and one acquittal are usually nothing to brag about. But I will always say with pride that I was one of Bram Fischer’s juniors in that case where defeat was turned into victory by Bram Fischer.”

Bram Fischer

Shortly after the trial Bram Fischer was charged with membership of the outlawed Communist Party, of which he had been the acting chairman. The maximum sentence was seven years. The apartheid government then passed a law giving the Minister of Justice the power to repeat indefinitely 180 day orders of detention without trial. Fischer considered that this abrogation of the rule of law justified him in jumping bail and going underground. It was a calculated gesture of defiance, to send a message that at least one prominent Afrikaner was prepared to sacrifice his liberty and maybe his life to stand up against apartheid. He knew that when he was caught, as was inevitable, the government would charge him with sabotage or treason, both capital offences. He was mortified when two days later the Johannesburg Bar Council, of which he had been chairman and the longest serving member, applied to have his name struck off the Roll of Advocates for dishonourable conduct. 38 years later George, acting for Fischer’s daughters Ruth and Ilse, successfully applied to have his name posthumously restored. A specially constituted three judge court of the Pretoria Supreme Court, comprising a black presiding judge, an Indian and a female Afrikaner, ruled that he had been the victim of a serious miscarriage of justice. In 2018, at a special screening of my film at Wits in honour of Joel Joffe, the Indian judge, Justice Posnan revealed that the judges had decided that their decision and supporting judgment should constitute a line in the sand between the old law and the new law and the old politics and the new politics.

After nine months underground Fischer was caught and charged with membership of the same conspiracy to overthrow the government by sabotage as his Rivonia trial clients.

George asked his old friend and mentor: “Bram, for nine months underground was it worth it to give up your family and your practice?” Fisher was furious. “Didn’t Nelson have a family? Didn’t he have a practice? Why do you ask me that question if you didn’t ask him?” George was crestfallen but said that Fischer was “a forgiving one” and it didn’t stop them remaining friends.

Led by Sydney Kentridge QC, George acted for Fischer at his trial. As with their clients at the Rivonia trial, Fischer chose to turn it into a political trial. Like Mandela, he too made a statement from the (very same) dock. It was an apologia pro sua vita and a clarion call for the black and white and particularly Afrikaner opponents of apartheid to make common cause in establishing a non-racial democracy. George fervently believed that Bram and a small number of white and Indian activists, who showed by example that there were whites and Indians who were prepared to make sacrifices to bring apartheid to an end, persuaded Mandela to abandon the narrow Africanist approach he espoused in the late 1940s in favour of a non-racial democratic policy. That change of heart did not result from the years on Robben Island but was already there at the Rivonia trial, as reflected in his famous peroration. I have no doubt that George was one of those who played a key role in changing Mandela’s approach. He told me that if Fischer had survived, he believed that Mandela would have tried to persuade him to stand for President in 1994, that Fischer would have declined and that Mandela would have nominated him to be his Vice President.

In the long years between the Rivonia trial and Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, George worked tirelessly acting for political activists and their families. He appeared in many low-profile cases and most of the high-profile ones. These included the Little Rivonia Trial where the defendants included Laloo Chiba, Dave Kitson, Mac Maharaj and Wilton Mkwayi, the trial of Herman Toivo ya Toivo and 36 other Namibian leaders of SWAPO, the trial of the Nusas Five, the trial of Barbara Hogan, the trial of Albertina Sisulu and the Delmas trial. Following the June 1976 police massacre of hundreds of Soweto school children protesting against being taught in Afrikaans, he represented Cyril Ndlovu and other students involved in the uprising and appeared before the Cillié Commission of Enquiry into the uprising on behalf of Winnie Mandela. In 1979, together with Arthur Chaskalson, Judge Johann Kriegler and Professor John Dugard, he founded Lawyers for Human Rights and the Legal Resources Centre was founded by Arthur Chaskalson, Felicia Kentridge and Geoff Budlender as a public interest law firm. It played a key role in challenging apartheid laws and George acted for it in many cases.

Together with Sydney Kentridge and Ernie Wentzel, George acted for the family of Steve Biko at the inquest into his death in police custody in 1977. Second only to the Rivonia trial it was the most important case of the apartheid era because for the second time it brought to the attention of the world the cruelty, corruption and inhumanity of apartheid. The lawyers proved to the satisfaction of the world that Biko had been murdered by the security police and that his death had been acquiesced in and covered up by doctors. The sole exception was the supine Government appointed magistrate who found that no one was to blame in a shameful judgement lasting 30 seconds in which he failed even to attempt to explain why, despite having indicated at the outset that it would take some time to review the evidence and write his judgment. George acted in three other death in custody inquests for the families of Ahmed Timol, Neil Aggett and Simon Mndawe. In each case the magistrate found no one to blame. Years later in his book No One To Blame? In Pursuit of Justice in South Africa, he wrote about this sorry chapter in the story of the law in the apartheid era.

As Mandela’s lawyer George was allowed more frequent access to him in jail than his family and would visit him every two months. This took their friendship to a new level. Mandela wrote: “In my absence in jail George became the father of my family and my children and it is for that reason that the name George Bizos carries with me a particular sentiment which I have never forgotten.” Just as he had done at the end of the Black Man In A White Man’s Court trial, after he was convicted and sentenced Mandela asked George to look after his family. While he was in jail George was able to bring him news of his family and frequently acted for his wife Winnie who was endlessly harassed, detained and prosecuted by the apartheid regime. In 1958, shortly after he married Winnie, Mandela had asked him to defend her on a charge of assaulting a police officer. “George”, he said “I have married trouble.” Between 1958 and 1991 he acted for her 35 times, mostly with success. The last time, together with Dikgang Moseneke and Pius Mlanga, later to become Chief Justice, he acted for her in the Stompie Seipei case, when she was convicted of kidnap and being an accessory to assault, but her six-year sentence was reduced on appeal to two years suspended. As ‘a wholly trusted confidant’ he travelled to Lusaka to meet Oliver Tambo, the President of the ANC in exile, as Mandela’s envoy to update and reassure him on his approach in his preliminary negotiations with the Nationalist government for the release of the political prisoners and ending apartheid. The advice and friendship endured until Mandela’s death in 2013 and is described in George’s last book: 65 Years of Friendship.

After Mandela’s release from 27 years imprisonment, George was nominated for Parliament by a number of ANC branches but he declined to let his name be put forward for the ANC election list. Mandela ask him to join the government with him or seek a judicial appointment to the Bench but again he declined, saying he wanted to retain his independence and continue his work as a human rights lawyer, although he would remain available as counsel to Mandela and the ANC. He did agree to an appointment on the Judicial Service Commission to recommend candidates for judicial office and reforms to the judicial system and played an important role in the negotiations for the new Constitution. Although never a member of the ANC, he was appointed to the ANC Legal and Constitutional Committee, served as advisor to the ANC negotiating team at Codesa and participated in drawing up the interim constitution and Bill of Rights. In 1996 he led the team for the Constituent Assembly before the Constitutional Court to certify the new Constitution and appeared on behalf of the cabinet in the first case before the new Constitutional Court arguing successfully that the death penalty was unlawful under the new Constitution.

In 1991 he formalised his role at the Legal Resources Centre from where, as Senior Advocate, he fought human rights cases for quarter of a century.

He persisted in the search for truth and justice for many families of activists who had died in police custody, disappeared or been killed in the apartheid era. Between 1963 and 1990, 73 detainees died in police custody. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, acting on behalf of several victims and families of victims, he opposed applications for amnesty by Security policemen and others accused of murder and torture or acquiescence or complicity in covering it up. His clients included the families of Steve Biko, Chris Hani and the Craddock Four, where amnesty was refused and Ruth First, where it was granted. Two years ago, he told me that he was working round the clock to settle applications for the re-opening of inquests in cases where magistrates found no one to blame. Since then a second inquest in the Timol case overturned the original finding and a former Security policeman is on trial for murder and a second inquest in the Neil Aggett case is ongoing.

Nor were George’s cases confined to abuses dating from the apartheid era. In 2004 he acted for Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe on charges of treason for an alleged plot to assassinate president Mugabe and in 2012 he was instructed by the Legal Resources Centre to represent the families of miners killed in the Marikana police massacre.

Family And Greece

It was at Wits that George met Arethe Daflos, a Greek artist. They married in 1954, the year he was admitted to the Bar, and were happily married until her death in 2017.They had three sons, Kimon, Damon and Alexi and seven grandchildren. He was a devoted family man and remained very close to his family throughout his life. He was a passionate gardener and during the Rivonia trial would lighten the mood at the lengthy consultations in Pretoria prison by bringing fruit and vegetables from his garden to share with the defendants and lawyers.

For 31 years he remained stateless and did not return to Greece. The apartheid regime would not grant him a passport and he feared that if he applied for a Greek passport the regime would not allow him to return to South Africa. Finally, in 1972 an intermediary persuaded Prime Minister Vorster to grant him South African citizenship and he was able to visit his village in Greece. It was his reunion with his classmates which made him think that he may have been born in 1927 not 1928, as they told him that that was the year they were born. When I asked him how old he was he said: “It depends on whether you believe my father or my mother.”

Although a loyal and proud South African he also remained proud of his Greek heritage. He set up a Greek school in Johannesburg, albeit open to all races and became active in the campaign for the return to Greece of the Elgin Marbles. Many a court victory was celebrated by George roasting lamb on a spit Greek style in his garden. Asked who he would support if Greece played South Africa at football he replied: “I would hope for a draw”.

George was a man of impeccable integrity. The second time I interviewed him was at the Legal Resources Centre in the Bram Fischer Building, a decrepit office block in the old commercial centre of Johannesburg, an area which then resembled a dystopian post-apocalyptic world of drug dealers and open braziers on the streets. His room was one of many identical cubicles at the end of a corridor with a faded carpet. The other occupants were lawyers in their 20s and 30s advising indigent clients. On the door to his cell was a white piece of paper stuck on with cellotape and the words Advocate G Bizos in biro. And when you knocked on the door and went in there was the greatest living human rights lawyer in South Africa, who had been the closest confidant, until his death a few months earlier, of the most powerful man in the country. For nearly sixty years he lived modestly in the same narrow three bedroomed house in Johannesburg designed by Arethe in 1961. Of the Rivonia defence team, Vernon Berrangé knew that by accepting the defence brief he was bringing his stellar career as the greatest cross-examiner at the Bar to a premature end, Bram Fischer deliberately courted life imprisonment by going underground as The Scarlet Pimpernel to Mandela’s Black Pimpernel when he had gone underground after the Sharpeville massacre, a defiant gesture of solidarity with the ANC, Joel Joffe in exile in the UK gave most of his money away in philanthropic causes and Arthur Chaskalson turned his back on a lucrative career at the commercial bar to run the Legal Resources Centre. Not for George, any more than for the Rivonia defendants or their other lawyers, the trappings of power or the spoils of victory.

At his memorial service former Deputy Chief Justice Moseneke said: “When it was not fashionable, particularly to white South Africans, George Bizos chose the side of the powerless.” President Ramaphosa said: “It astounded him that he, a refugee from Europe, had more rights in South Africa than the black majority. He could not and would not accept how he, a white immigrant, could be well-fed, clothed and educated while the native people of the country lived in squalor and deprivation.”

Courtesy Wits University

In 2015 George took part in a colloquium on the life and legacy Bram Fisher at Wits University on the occasion of the award of a posthumous honorary doctorate on Bram. The award ceremony took place in front of a large cohort of graduating students. As he looked around at the female and male graduates of every colour, smiling and excited in their academic robes, he said out loud to himself: “South Africa has changed.” He played no small part in bringing about that change.

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