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OBITUARY | George Bizos, human rights advocate with courage and integrity

By Nomahlubi Jordaan

Human rights advocate George Bizos passed away peacefully at home, attended to by family on Wednesday after a career and life that left an indelible mark in South African history. He was 91.

Advocate George Bizos got emotional as he spoke about Nelson Mandela after the reading of his will in Houghton, Johannesburg in 2014. Bizos passed away on Wednesday. File photo. Image: Sowetan/Thulani Mbele
Advocate George Bizos got emotional as he spoke about Nelson Mandela after the reading of his will in Houghton, Johannesburg in 2014. Bizos passed away on Wednesday. File photo.
Image: Sowetan/Thulani Mbele

Born in Greece, Bizos moved to South Africa in 1941 as a refugee with his father. He completed his law degree at the university of the Witwatersrand in 1950. He was later admitted to the Johannesburg Bar and practised as an advocate until 1990.

“He served as an advocate in Johannesburg until 1990, when he worked as a counsel to 40 lawyers at the Legal Resources Centre and the Constitutional Litigation Unit,” according to SA History Online.

Bizos was renowned for representing high-profile political activists, including former president Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, and was instrumental in negotiations for the release of Mandela and other political prisoners.

In his book, 65 Years of Friendship, Bizos spoke of his relationship with Mandela.

“Nelson Mandela strode up to me on the steps of the Great Hall, smiling his wonderful smile,” Bizos wrote in the book.

He also wrote about not expecting Mandela, who at the time was already a political figure of some standing, to be interested in him, a first-year student nine years his junior, “but Nelson was already possessed of that genuine interest in other people that so defined him. He wanted to know about me and how it was that I was prepared to make a public statement of that nature”.

“With friends and colleagues such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Duma Nokwe and Chief Albert Luthuli, it was inevitable that I would become the person defending them during their trials.

“People always asked if I wasn’t afraid of the police then. Funnily enough, the security police who watched us closely had a respect for advocates. But this gradually changed,” he was quoted as saying in the book.

The Legal Resources Centre (LRC) said that since the inception of the organisation, Bizos had used it as a “base” in key litigation, “including leading the team for the government in passing the constitution in 1996, representing families of apartheid atrocities at the TRC, leading the LRC team at the Marikana commission, seeking justice for the Timol and other families of people murdered in detention, and of course many other lesser known cases, always seeking justice for victims of injustice”.

The centre said Bizos had also played an “enormous” role in mentoring many in the legal profession inside and outside the LRC, some of whom had progressed to senior positions in the profession and the judiciary.

Bizos was the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, such as the Order For Meritorious Service Class II Medal awarded to him by President Nelson Mandela in 1999, the Bernard Simon Memorial Award from the International Bar Association in October 2004, the Sydney & Lady Kentridge Award, and the Duma Nokwe Human Rights and Democracy Award.

Passionate about education, he was instrumental in founding the Saheti School more than 45 years ago.

“As a community, we have walked alongside a man who has become an icon of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa,” the school said said on Wednesday evening.

“As a great role model, he stood up for freedom and justice and endorsed Hellenic values displaying the virtues of respect, courage and duty, even if at own personal cost. The Greeks have a word for this, and it is called philotimo, loosely translated as a love of honour and belonging within our community.”

The school described him as a proud family man, a person of great integrity and courage, and one who encapsulated the dictum by Socrates: “It is not living that matters, but living rightly.” TimesLive

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