George Bizos, the Greek-South African human rights lawyer who fought apartheid and saved Nelson Mandela from a death sentence during the Rivonia Trial, died on September 9, 2020.
Bizos was born in Vasilitsi in 1927, and spent his formative years there before emigrating with his father to South Africa at the age of 13.
That year, 1941, was also the first time Bizos fought for freedom, when he and his father helped seven New Zealand soldiers escape the Nazi-occupied Peloponnesian Peninsula and flee to Crete.
The escape did not go as planned, however, and the boat Bizos was on was adrift off Crete for three days before he was rescued by the British destroyer HMS Kimberley on its way to the Battle of Crete. After the battle, the British ship dropped him off in Alexandria, Egypt.
From there, Bizos was sent to South Africa as a refugee and he landed in Durban. The local Greek community there helped him enter the University of the Witwatersrand, where he studied law.
Honoring the life of the Greek lawyer who saved Nelson Mandela
Greeks and South Africans, including Bizos’ children and grandchildren, were present at the moving ceremony. Beryl Sisulu, South African Ambassador to Greece, spoke of Bizos’ persistent fight against apartheid:
“George was a man who combined a sympathetic nature with an incisive mind. He would meticulously slice through the evidence of security police and the judicial officials to make them seem stupid. For four decades he exposed state lies and hypocrisy, state brutality and murder.”
She even spoke of her own family’s connection to the Greek-South African lawyer. Walter and Albertine Sisulu, her parents, fought against apartheid themselves.
“He would do everything to care for the families of his clients when they were in prison. In most cases, George was like the uncle for the children of his clients. In the case of my family, George would represent the whole family at different times of our trials: Sometimes the entire adult members of the family would be in detention at the same time. It was the same for Mandela and his wife Winnie,” Sisulu stated.
“We are grateful to the Hellenes, the Hellenic Republic and in particular the mayor and the village community of Vasilitsi for sharing with us your treasured life in the form of George Bizos,” The South African Ambassador to Greece said.
George Bizos’ life
Along with serving as Nelson Mandela’s lawyer, George Bizos was also one of the three writers of the South African Constitution. He was a much-loved figure in South Africa and there is a wing named after him in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.
A true freedom fighter throughout his life, Bizos’ name is linked to the struggle against racism, xenophobia, and apartheid and the values of solidarity, human rights and democracy.
His contribution to the Republic of South Africa is priceless, as the country’s Constitution, co-written by him is considered one of the most progressive in the world.
Bizos met Mandela in 1948, at the university where Mandela gave daily lectures on human rights. Mandela was ten years older than Bizos and would help him make a living by assigning him cases. As Bizos said, they “became friends in the courts.”
The Greek-South African lawyer joined the Johannesburg Bar in 1954, and during 1963 – 1964 he was part of the team that defended Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu in the Rivonia Trial. The accused were sentenced to life imprisonment, but were spared the death penalty.
Bizos believes that he may have contributed to Mandela’s avoidance of the death penalty, by making it appear that Mandela was not seeking martyrdom. He said that his main contribution was to advise the use of the words “if need be” before Mandela said that he was prepared to die.
In the 1970s Bizos helped start a Greek school called SAHETI. It embraced Hellenism, yet was non-exclusive, even during the middle of the apartheid years. He became a senior member of the Johannesburg Bar in 1978. He was a member of the National Council of Lawyers for Human Rights, which he helped found in 1979. He was also Senior Counsel at the Legal Recourses Centre in Johannesburg in the Constitutional Litigation Unit.
In 1990 Bizos became a member of the African National Congress (ANC) Legal and Constitutional Committee, and at the 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, 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.
When Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994, he appointed Bizos to the Judicial Services Commission which recommends candidates for appointment as judges and proposes reforms to the judicial system to erase its apartheid past.
Bizos was the leader of the South African Government’s legal team, arguing that the death penalty was unconstitutional, and served as counsel for the National Assembly in the Certification of the Constitution by the Constitutional Court.
Bizos was married to Arethe Daflos, whom he called “Rita,” who he met in 1948 when she was an art student. The couple had three sons. Rita passed away in 2017, shortly before her husband’s 90th birthday.