George Bizos (15 November 1927 – 9 September 2020) was a human rights lawyer who campaigned against apartheid in South Africa, most notably during the Rivonia Trial.
1 Early life
2 Legal career
2.1 Film about Rivonia
2.2 Notable people represented
3 Other activities
4 Personal life and death
5 Honours and awards
9 Further reading
10 External links
Bizos was the son of Antonios (known to his family and friends as "Antoni") Bizos, the mayor of the small village of Vasilitsi, south of Koroni and Kalamata on the Messenia peninsula of the Peloponnese, Greece. He was born on 15 November 1927 (although recorded incorrectly on his South African identity documents as 1928, owing to his father's declaration to the authorities upon arrival in Egypt).
In May 1941 at the age of thirteen, George Bizos and his father helped seven New Zealand soldiers (Don Gladding, Mick Karup, Peter Martin, John Lewis and three others) who were hiding in the hills to escape the Nazi-occupied Greek mainland to Crete. He says the escape did not go well and he was adrift for three days until he managed to attract the attention of crew on the British destroyer, HMS Kimberley, which was on its way to the Battle of Crete. After the battle HMS Kimberley dropped him off at Alexandria, Egypt.
As a refugee he was sent to South Africa and landed in Durban. From there he went by train to Johannesburg, disembarking at the Braamfontein railway station. At the time, the Ossewabrandwag, an Afrikaner group with Nazi sympathies, were demonstrating against the arrival of refugees. The Ossewabrandwag blamed Jan Smuts for bringing the vuilgoed (rubbish) of Europe to South Africa. The local Greek community helped integrate him into society.
Bizos did not go to school for his first two years in the country, because he could not speak English or Afrikaans. He gained entry to the University of the Witwatersrand in 1949, starting a 3-year Bachelor of Arts degree, followed by a three-year LLB law degree. It was here that he first became politically active, joining the Students' Representative Council under the leadership of Harold Wolpe.
Bizos joined the Bar in Johannesburg in 1954. During the 1950s and 1960s he was counsel to a wide range of well-known people including Trevor Huddleston of Sophiatown.
At the Rivonia Trial from 1963-64, Bizos was part of the team that defended Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu. The accused were sentenced to life imprisonment, but spared the death penalty. Although it is sometimes said that he claims to have drafted Mandela's famous speech spoken at the trial, he says that his main contribution was to advise the use of the words "if needs be" before Mandela said that he was prepared to die. Bizos believed that this may have contributed to the avoidance of the death penalty, by having Mandela not appear to seek martyrdom. This trial heralded the arrival of a group of tough human rights lawyers – Joel Joffe, Harry Schwarz, Arthur Chaskalson and Harold Hanson.
Bizos was counsel at various inquests into the deaths of people in detention.
Bizos became a senior member of the Johannesburg Bar in 1978. He is a member of the National Council of Lawyers for Human Rights, which he helped found in 1979. He was Senior Counsel at the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg in the Constitutional Litigation Unit. He was a judge on Botswana's Court of Appeal from 1985 to 1993.
In 1990, Bizos became a member of the African National Congress' (ANC) Legal and Constitutional Committee, and at Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) he served as advisor to the negotiating teams and participated in drawing up the Interim Constitution. He was involved in the drafting of legislation, and particularly the Truth and Reconciliation Bill and amendments to the Criminal Procedures Act, to bring it into line with Chapter 3 of the constitution, guaranteeing fundamental human rights to all citizens of South Africa.
In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, Bizos was the leader of the team that opposed applications for amnesty on behalf of the Biko, Hani, Goniwe, Calata, Mkonto, Mhlauli, Slovo and Schoon families.
In 1994, Bizos was appointed by President Mandela to the Judicial Services Commission which, in terms of the constitution, recommends candidates for appointment as judges and proposes reforms to the judicial system to erase its apartheid past. Bizos was the leader of the team for the South African Government to argue that the death penalty was unconstitutional, and counsel for the National Assembly in the Certification of the Constitution by the Constitutional Court.
In 2005, Bizos was legal advisor to Nelson Mandela in a bitter legal dispute with Mandela's former lawyer, Ismail Ayob.
Bizos represented the Chinese Association of South Africa in a case that ended in 2008 in which Chinese South Africans were granted 'previously disadvantaged' status, thus qualifying them for Black Economic Empowerment benefits.
Film about Rivonia
In 2017 Bizos appeared along with surviving defendants at the Rivonia Trial, Denis Goldberg, Andrew Mlangeni and Ahmed Kathrada, along with fellow defence lawyers Joel Joffe and Denis Kuny, in a documentary film entitled “Life is Wonderful”, directed by Sir Nicholas Stadlen, which tells the story of the trial. The title reflects Goldberg's words to his mother at the end of the trial on hearing that he and his comrades had been spared the death sentence.
Notable people represented
Bizos represented the following people, among others:
Nelson Mandela, since the 1950s
Trevor Huddleston of Sophiatown, 1950s
Mac Maharaj in the Little Rivonia Trial
Govan Mbeki in the Rivonia Trial in 1963–64
Walter Sisulu in the Rivonia Trial in 1963–64, and afterwards his wife
Ahmed Timol's family, regarding his death in detention in 1971
Steve Biko's family, regarding his death in detention in 1977
Neil Aggett's family, regarding his death in detention in 1982
Rob Adam in a trial for involvement in ANC activities, 1982
Patrick Lekota (known as "Terror") and Popo Molefe at the Delmas Treason Trial, 1985 – 89
Chris Hani's family, during a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing where Hani's assassins had applied for amnesty.
Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change of Zimbabwe, when he was charged with planning a coup d'état before the 2002 general elections
In the 1970s Bizos helped start a Greek school, called SAHETI. It embraced Hellenism, yet was non-exclusionist, even during the heart of apartheid. It was here that people like Chris Hani's children were educated.
In 2013, two of Mandela's daughters brought court action to oust Bizos, ex-Housing Minister Tokyo Sexwale and lawyer Bally Chuene as directors of two of Mandela's firms. Bizos said that the daughters were trying to "get their hands on things that should not be sold". The case was delayed after the daughters' lawyer Ismail Ayob withdrew from the case.
Personal life and death
Bizos was married to Arethe Daflos, known as "Rita", who died sometime before his 90th birthday in November 2017. The couple had three sons.
Bizos died on 9 September 2020 at the age of 92.
Honours and awards
1999: Order for Meritorious Service Class II medal from then President Mandela.
2001: 2001 International Trial Lawyer Prize of the Year by the International Academy of Trial Lawyers.
2004: The International Bar Association (IBA) named Bizos the winner of the 2004 Bernard Simons Memorial Award
George Bizos Saheti Scholarship and Bursary Fund
Arethe Daflos-Bizos Arts Scholarship (announced on Bizos' 90th birthday to honour his late wife)
Odyssey to Freedom. South Africa: Penguin & Random House. 2011. ISBN 978-1-4152-0307-1.
65 Years of Friendship. Penguin Random House South Africa. 2017. ISBN 9781415208861.