1927 Born in Vasilitsi, Greece 1941 Came to South Africa during World War II
1963-1964 Defended anti-apartheid activists during the Rivonia Trial
1977 Became a Senior Counsel of the Johannesburg Bar
1985-1993 Senior Counsel at Johannesburg’s Legal Resources Centre and Judge on Botswana’s Court of Appeal
1979-1993 Defence counsel in high profile political trials. and co-founding National Council of Lawyers for Human Rights
1985-1993 Judge of the Court of Appeal in Botswana
1994 Honorary Member of the Athens Bar
1990-1994 Member of the ANC's Legal and Constitutional Committee 1999 Doctorate of Law from Wits and received the Order for Meritorious Service Class II medal from President Nelson Mandela
2003-2004 Defended Zimbabwean opposition politician Morgan Tsvangirai 2008 Honorary Doctorate in Law from UCT
2020 Died at 92 in Johannesburg, South Africa
George Bizos passed away on the 9th of September 2020 leaving behind a story that started in 1927, from a little hilltop town in Southern Greece, drifting into an orphanage in Alexandria, Egypt, before docking a Navy ship as a refugee to South Africa in 1941. George may have departed this world, but the influence of his work still echoes in present-day South Africa, his presence still fresh and alive, for generations to come, in the pages of the history books, the same history books that he leaned on for valuable lessons through out most of his life.
George's earliest encounter with the phenomenon of oppression, was in primary school, when he was taught how the Spartan warriors occupied land belonging to other people they considered inferior. This made him question the notion of class divisions and their origins. Arriving in South Africa as a refugee, and experiencing how black citizens of the same country were denied privileges he was accorded, simply on the basis of the difference between his skin color and theirs, he chose to revolt, turning his back on the benefits the system would have granted him and quickly turning to the left. In our interview with him, he pointed out that “I became an enemy of the governing party, because I said, if wanting equal treatment of black students at the university made me a leftist, I was proud to be one.” A decision that branded him as a troublemaker in the eyes of the repressive regime who worked to deny him a citizenship until 1972.
George’s love for history and the lessons it teaches, helped shape the role he played in forging a new democracy for the country. One devoid of the blood shed and the consequences of a civil war. This informed his decision to stand by his close friend and confidant, Nelson Mandela, supporting the role he played during negotiations with the white oppressors, for a new South Africa. He defended him against critics who accused him of being a sellout, saying; “I am a pretty serious student of history, what does it tell us? That bloody revolutions don’t solve problems, they actually create problems. In France it led to the dictatorship of Napoleon, and to the wars that followed Napoleon as a leader ... We don't know what we say, when we say that we should have put the white man in his place, what would have been the net result, there would have been a bloody civil war. There was a civil war in Greece, between the left and the right, bringing the overthrow of the King to having a democracy. More people died in that civil war than the war against the Axis Powers and it took the country over 30 years to find some sort of peace among itself ”.
During Geroge’s last days, he looked to history still, for a pointer to the panacea the country needs now and in the future to tackle its most pressing problems. He urged us to “follow the example of Nelson Mandela, who was begged to take another period, term of office and he made it quite clear publicly that he wants to set an example for Africa. One term is enough, let my people choose someone else.” George remained a strong advocate for democracies and the rights it affords citizens, "Democracy has difficulties ... but it's still the best form of government that there is in the world”.
Let people speak
Key Quality of a Servant Leader
Advocate George Bizos
1982-1994 Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits
1982-1994 Senior Counsel at the Legal Resources Centre
1999 Member International Academy of Trial Lawyers and leader of the team for the Constituent Assembly before the Constitutional Court to certify the country's new constitution
1994 Appointed to the Judicial Services Commission
2001 International Trial Lawyer Prize of the Year from the International Academy of Trial Lawyers
2004 International Bar Association's (IBA) prestigious Bernard Simons Memorial Award in Auckland, Australia
2004 Annual Sydney and Felicia Kentridge Award, from the General Council of the Bar
Interview took place February 2017
Socrates and Mandela, a tale of two trials and the line that made the difference
"... Socrates was sentenced to death by a majority of the people of Athens. You were tried by 500 chosen citizens for not being patriotic and generally speaking they sent you into exile and some of the best people were sent away… Socrates was sentenced to death. Nemon, his pupil, went to him and said, “We want you to escape”. He refused. He said, "We've been telling everybody to obey the law, what will they say now, look at Socrates, he doesn't respect the majority". And I told Nelson… Socrates... had a right, if it was proposed that he was to be put to death, to … say I will go into exile for 10 years. And I said, if Socrates said, okay I’d go away … he would probably have saved his life... No, Nelson... said that I am prepared to die... if I don't say it now, they’ll say hey Nelson you’ve weakened. I said please you’ve been accused… I'm going to... suggest a compromise… I said just put the words ‘if needs be’ he said I’m prepared to do that, thank you”. Nelson Mandela 1964 Rivonia Trial: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
How he met Mandela
"... It started when we were students, he was ahead of me, he qualified, he became an attorney in ‘52, I became an advocate in ‘54, we used to see each other, even though he was… from Wits as an old faculty because the, it's well known, that the Dean said that blacks can’t be advocates… get a diploma as an attorney. They set up Mandela and Tambo opposite the magistrate’s court. There were things that we could not do together, we couldn't go to a tea room, or a restaurant, and eat or drink. I couldn't go to Soweto without a permit, if you applied for a permit, you had to say to whom were you going to see and what for so we nevertheless met together. When he was a student, and when he became an attorney, and I took an interest when he was charged with being part of the Defiance Campaign. I went to court, I was still a student, things were not as easy. You know that we packed students, packed in the wide passage of the magistrate’s court, and the authorities of the university, Wits University, took exception to the fact that some of us were wearing the university blazer, we were not allowed to show it during a protest, but we had to live with it. And sometimes, if you can't do things that you want to do, you become even stauncher. And he became an attorney, I became an advocate... But I became a very close friend of Nelson Mandela in particular, I was appointed by him to be his lawyer, whilst he was in jail, I saw him regularly and Winnie was quite clever, she’d find reason, finding reasons why I should go and see her husband. I had to discuss with Nelson which school should the children go to, what subjects they should take... "
The choices: sunset or sunrise clauses to avoid a bloody revolution
"... Nelson Mandela did not take any serious decision on his own, Nelson Mandela knew that Joe Slovo wanted guerilla warfare in the early 60s. He knew that there were people in the Black Consciousness Movement even though he had a lot of respect on what has become the hero of the Black Consciousness Movement, Biko, he was there and I was there when the statue of Biko was put up, but he consulted, he weighed up what are the alternatives. One of the things that was a matter of great difficulty was that what do you do with the people that were a mere 15 percent of the population, that’s the whites, who own the lands, who won the money, who govern the stock exchange who do this that and the other, what do you do? Quite frankly do you do what Mugabe did? And where did it get Mugabe? And the people of Zimbabwe and do we want to go on the same road? And the answer, he was a man who could persuade. The idea of the sunset clauses was discussed in the hotel near Shell House, I was there, Ndlamini Zuma was there, Joe Slovo was presiding and Ndlamini Zuma says Comrade Joe, what is this we hear about sunset clauses, and Comrade Joe says: “You know it's quite complicated for lawyers, Comrade George will explain”. And I explained very simply, that there are things that are too difficult that you cannot cut a knife and say this is it, this is what we want. But there are sunset clauses that things are provided but for a period of time, and I sat down. And Ndlamini Zuma says: “Comrade Joe, I heard what Comrade George says, but we’re relying on you that there should be more sunrises than sunset clauses”, and everybody laughed of course. But it was something that we could not avoid. A bloody revolution was the alternative and some of us had bitter experiences about bloody revolutions..."
Please note this is a word-for-word transcript from Daniel and George's conversation.
When he learned the impact of no compliance
"... I went with one of my cousins from Athens to the village. My left uncle was with two others, we joined them and they ordered coffee for us and the man that is considered a traitor to the Germans came down the door and saw his son sitting, and the son got up and embraced his father. He went and sat at a different table, I greeted him and I offered him coffee. Eleny was the woman that was running [the place] when we drank the coffee. I said: “Eleny take for six coffees”. My left uncle took my hand and banged it on the table and said: “Eleny come here, take for five coffees”. He was not prepared to associate himself with the enemy more than 35 years after the event. These are the lessons that I learnt about civil wars and about no-compromisers. Nelson Mandela and I discussed these methods, we were friends, we didn't try to influence one another. He had started reading Greek texts in jail because ... they said look these are prescribed books and Nelson Mandela, Walter Susulu, Kathrada and others became people who wanted a peaceful settlement..."
How he worked with Mandela, when he faced challenges being a black attorney
" ... He appeared before the magistrate of Kempton Park: ”I appear your Lordship for the accused.” “Who are you?”. “My name is Nelson Mandela, I'm an attorney.” “ Where is your certificate?” “I don't carry it with me.” The magistrate turns around to the accused and says: “I can’t recognise the person that says he is your attorney without seeing his certificate, you have a right to find another attorney, or you can conduct your own defence and I will postpone the case”. Nelson protested but nevertheless the case was postponed. Nelson came to me and complained he said: “He postponed the case to a date on which I’m not available, I’m on another case. I want you to take the case at Kempton Park.” And I said “Nelson I’ll take the other case, you go back with your certificate. Show this magistrate that he can't treat you this way.” And that happened. And what happened: “Here is my certificate.” The case starts, first witness, magistrate to the witness”. “I don't understand the question that this man has asked you, and I don't know that you understand it.You don't have to answer it.” And so it went on, and Nelson said: ”Your Lordship makes it very difficult for me to do my job. Just one moment.” He writes something down, and he turns around to the accused and says: ”Your attorney has withdrawn.” Nelson stood up and said: “I have not withdrawn, I just asked you to stop interfering with my cross-examination.”
“You know I have written down on the record that you have withdrawn, it's contempt of court to challenge the accuracy of the magistrate.” The magistrate says: “You don't have to be here.” Nelson came up to my chambers and told me what happened. As young as I was, I was an advocate. I said if your client prepared to make an affidavit that he wants you to be his lawyer, and we’ll then go to the Supreme Court and ask for the recusal of the magistrate. My client whom I gave a lift back to Johannesburg told him that: “Mr Mandela I’m sorry that I’m putting you through this trouble but I want you to do my case, I chose you”… needless to say that the accused was a black man..."
How apartheid spies they bugged the flower beds
" ... Nelson, when he was transferred to Victor Verster, I visited there. Actually, we had lunch, the warder and his son… his cook and his waiter… He was allowed under doctor’s orders to have a glass of wine, and he said to them: “George Bizos is coming, there will not be enough wine” and the warder said: “You know Mr Mandela, George Bizos won’t drink the semi-sweet wine that you are drinking”. “Ooh” he said. And there was a banking account for him, and he said: “Well here’s money, go and buy three bottles of wine for Mr Bizos to choose what wine”. Then Nelson told me…“Which of the three wines did they think you would drink, they pointed to a bottle, the one that you wanted. When they brought it to you and told you to choose, they chose the one that they knew you will choose. Which means that they are watching you”. And then we learnt that because we had had secret things to talk about, we would go out of the house, and would go on the path around the house. And what did we learn after the event, that they had bugged the flower beds, so that they knew what we were discussing... "
He (Mandela) didn't want to do anything in secret
" ... When he was sent to Pollsmoor ‘85, it was not very well known, that secret negotiations started between the apartheid government and Nelson Mandela. Nelson called me to Pollsmoor when he was actually in hospital. He told me that the Minister of Justice came, and he wanted to know whether there was some way in which we can find one another, and I told him in no uncertain terms that Nelson Mandela was a member of an organisation that had a president, Oliver Tambo. He was not prepared to take any decisions, which were not endorsed by the ANC in exile, and that he wanted me to go to Lusaka, and to talk to Oliver, and to talk to Hani. He was not prepared to do anything secret from his people. His organisation had to come with him. I did that and I went to Lusaka, and I went to Luanda and I came back, and I spoke to Kobie Coetsee (the Minister of Justice under who prisons fell), and actually I had a bit of a problem, because Coetsee said: “My president said I don’t know anything about what I’m doing, I didn’t believe you”. But also I was scared that when I came back from Zambia, the security police may be at the airport: “What were you doing in Zambia, what did you discuss with Oliver Tambo, and Hani” and this was why I was actually going to see Coetsee. I took Johann Kriegler with me, so that if Coetsee denied that he had authorised my leaving..."
His passion to end prejudice started at school, and informed how he saw the solution to land
"... I didn’t keep it a secret as a matter of pride... I am a refugee and… I was welcomed and actually warmly treated by this school… South Africa belongs to all… sections 30 and 31 of the constitution, this is what it says and the preamble South Africa belongs to all and everybody has these rights, everybody… And I actually tell them to avoid generalisations and I quote a judge at the beginning of the 20th century: “That generalisations are the products of vulgar minds, generalisation is the evidence of vulgar minds.” Because if you say Greeks are that, blacks are that, whites are that, Afrikaaners are that, and I quote Nelson Mandela, who at the first Bram Fisher lecture said: “I had the benefit of having my people behind me, Bram Fisher was not accepted by his people, but despite his nonacceptance, this is what he did for our emancipation.”… People who say, the whites are to blame, it's not only the whites that are to blame for our economic state, yes it is true that they own most of the land, but to say, cut up the land into 10 portions and give it to your workers the way Mugabe has done, I have an answer, I travelled to Lesotho through Free State, the amount of land that is fallow which is not used is too much for the eye to see. Why don’t we have a law, if you are the owner of a land, you’ve got to pay taxes on it, you don’t have to pay taxes here, in Europe you have to, if you own land, you’ve got to make use of it, if its fallow land, and you’re not prepared to produce on it, we will expropriate it, and we will not the constitution says you must have regard what use is made of the land before you actually value it, so you cant go to a man who’s got a vineyard in the Cape and say cut it up. Let's have a look what fallow land is there, let us bring water to it, let’s bring electricity to it. Let us, if it's fallow land, take it over... "
The invaluable role of women in the struggle
"... The chief of the Lehurutshe said in the presence of the chief native commissioner from and the brigadier of the police and other colonels that came and stood with the chief who spoke Setswana and you know what he said: “I didn’t call you here, they… called you, they told me to tell you that you must turn up to take passes, it’s not me it is they”. Well some did turn up, they made a very serious mistake the authorities, they said take off your doek, the women of Lehurutshenever took off their doeks and anyway they managed to issue 6 000 passes. The men from Johannesburg came, 20 of them that I had to defend and among them two women from Johannesburg who went there and said: “On Sunday bring all your passes there will be a big fire and we will burn”, and this was what happened. So women were not considered not contributing to the struggle. Similar thing happened with the people in the Eastern Transvaal and in the Eastern Cape… Nelson didn’t underestimate the women’s role in the struggle. Yes the slogans were male slogans, one man one vote and so on, but actually they, Nelson and Walter and the others welcomed the contribution that women made when they refused to take passes ... "
How his family responded when Voster threatened him
"... I got a name actually, in the eyes of the government, particularly because I defended Bram Fischer together with Sydney Kentridge. The government thought that I was a member of the underground Communist Party. You couldn’t be a member of the African National Congress at that time. I was followed, I was threatened by Prime Minister (B.J) Vorster who sent his lawyer to tell me in Afrikaans that my rope was getting short whilst defending Bram Fischer... I had family support, when I got the threat from Voster. I had a brother younger than me who was in business. I didn't tell my wife about the threat from Voster, but I went to my brother and I told him, who had a business and had a landlord and I told him well if anything happens to me make sure that you look after the family, and while most brothers would say, well do you want to become involved, my brother’s answer was that we may have to let the landlord move off the business and wait for his rent, but your family will not want. What I said that I was proud to be a leftist. The leaders of the Greek community went to my father and said: “Reign him in, he’s bringing the Greek community in disrepute”, and so I asked my father, what did you say to them: “I said to them that you are over 20 and it's not for me to tell him what to say” ... "
How he avoided taking a political position
"... Shortly after the release of Nelson Mandel, I got a call from the present vice president, “George, I have been requested by President Mandela, President of the ANC, to ask you and Arthur Chaskleson to join the committee of the ANC, to write the Constitution. And I asked Cyril: “Cyril does that mean that I’II have to take a card?” And he said: “No we don't want your 12 rands”. And together with Arthur, we agreed that we don't have to take part in political activity, we were lawyers, we must do our duty as lawyers. And I said to Cyril: “And what do we have to do Cyril?” He said: “Everything”. I said: “Everything Cyril?”. He said: “I'll try and get you an exemption from toyi toying”. I have never toy toyed. I speak my mind, I try not to be judgemental, I don't use derogatory words with those that I think that are not really living up [to] what Nelson Mandela taught us, and what he expected us to do. He has had a tremendous influence in my life, and we were friends, for over 65 years...
I was offered a political job, I said I’m no good for it. Nelson said: “Well we’ll make you a judge”. I said to Nelson: “Arthur Chaskleson is the best person to head the Constitutional Court, if you appoint me a judge they’ll say oh he’s appointed his two lawyers.” That wouldn’t be good for me and then good for me, for people to be able to say that Mandela appointed his two lawyers. And then he said to me: “This you can’t refuse. It is an order, we have a problem with the judiciary, the old judiciary, you have experience of them, I want you to become my representative on the Judicial Service Commission”. I couldn’t deny that ... "
must let people speak
"I think that we mustn't protest by burning or using violence, but don't let us keep quiet about it, let people speak about their bosses, about their friends, or even... about members of their family, which or who actually are profiting from this lack of discipline, and to say that one political party or, another are responsible is not helpful, I don't want to mention names, it's not, I'm very careful about that, but some of the people that are complaining about poverty, complaining about lack of education, complaining of being deprived of land are close to people who have benefitted from the corrupt practices, let them speak out, let them speak out, and let the prosecution, let the people that are in government or in organisations, voluntary organisations, discover, speak out, and let's bring to book, the people who have benefitted unlawfully.."
Daniel in conversation with
Advocate George Bizos
Don’t let fear influence you from distinguishing right from wrong