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George Bizos: The Greek Lawyer Who Saved Nelson Mandela

Bizos Nelson Mandela
George Bizos Credit: Wikimedia / Aya Chebbi

George Bizos, the Greek-South African human rights lawyer, who died on September 9, 2020, fought apartheid and saved Nelson Mandela from a death sentence.

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: From the Peloponnese to South Africa

Born in Messenia in the Peloponnese on November 15, 1927, Bizos first fought for freedom when he was only thirteen. It was 1941 when he and his father tried to help seven New Zealand soldiers escape the Nazi-occupied Peloponnesian Peninsula to flee to Crete.

Yet, the escape did not go as planned 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.

Bizos and Mandela became friends in the courts

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 joined the Johannesburg Bar in 1954, and in the time between 1963 to 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 establish 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 and 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.” They met in 1948 when she was an art student. The couple had three sons. Rita passed away in 2017, shortly before her husband’s ninetieth birthday.

The main square of Bizos’s hometown named after him

On the first anniversary of his death in 2021, residents of Bizos’ hometown of Vasilitsi in Messinia in the Peloponnese named the town’s main square “George A. Bizos”

george bizos mandela
The main square of Vasilitsi, Messinia was named after George A. Bizos, the Greek-South African lawyer who saved Mandela and fought apartheid. Credit: Messinia Press

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.

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