George Bizos loves Joburgers
25 November, 2002
Distinguished human rights advocate George Bizos “loves the people” of Johannesburg, the city where he has lived for 61 of his 74 years.
He loves the “air, vibrancy, and memories” of the city where he studied for a law degree at Wits, married and raised a family of three sons. Those good memories include the “many loyal friends I have been with during difficult times”.
He arrived in South Africa at the age of 13 with his father in 1941. They were World War II refugees picked up from an open boat off Crete, from where they were taken to a refugee camp in Alexandria, Egypt. Next stop was Durban, and then up to Johannesburg where the local Greek community smoothed their entry into the city.
Bizos has been an advocate in the city for 48 years, and since 1990 has been working at the Legal Resources Centre and the Constitutional Litigation Unit, as counsel to 40 lawyers. He has dedicated his working life fighting for basic human rights under apartheid, and since the collapse of apartheid in 1994, he has fought to ensure that those rights, guaranteed under the Constitution, are accorded to all South Africans.
He says he has “enjoyed most of the work” except for the difficult cases where “enjoyment would have been inappropriate”. He has represented prominent people in his career – the families of Steve Biko and Chris Hani; Walter Sisulu; and he defended Winnie Madikizela-Mandela on more than 20 occasions. He was involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, particularly blocking amnesty applications from the killers of prominent activists, including Mathew Goniwe and others known as the Cradock Four, Neil Aggett and Achmed Timol.
His contribution to South Africa has been widely acknowledged. In 1999 he received the Order for Meritorious Service Class II medal from then-president Nelson Mandela. He was a judge on Botswana’s Court of Appeal from 1985 to 1993; a member of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers in 1999; leader of the team for the Constituent Assembly before the Constitutional Court to certify the country’s new Constitution; in 1994 he was appointed to the Judicial Services Commission to recommend candidates for judicial office and reforms to the judicial system. The list goes on.
Lifelong friend Nelson Mandela says of Bizos in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: “George, the child of Greek immigrants, was a man who combined a sympathetic nature with an incisive mind.” Bizos represented Mandela in both the Treason and Rivonia Trials.
Bizos says he sees a new vitality coming back into the city centre, and hopes that the CBD will re-establish itself as the commercial, financial and entertainment centre of the country. “I have always been optimistic about the future of the city and the country, despite the difficulties.” He has offices in the city, overlooking Gandhi Square.
Although he says it was not a “conscious choice” to come to Johannesburg in 1941 – “the Greek community took responsibility for us” – he has appreciated the city over the years.
”I have a sense of enjoyment at the mine dumps,” he says. He recounts that, coming from a seaside village in Greece, as a young man in Johannesburg his favourite leisure activity used to be rowing a boat at Zoo Lake and Germiston Lake. Visits to the streams and mountainsides of the Magaliesberg were also much enjoyed.
In 1998 he published a book, No one to Blame? – in pursuit of justice in South Africa, recounting major trials defending people against the machinations of the security police. The only criticism of the book, he says, is that he didn’t say much about himself. But he is remedying that. He is writing his autobiography, and expects it to reach the bookshops next year.
Out of the courtroom, he spends half an hour every day in his vegetable garden; and precious time with his six grandchildren.
He has no plans for retirement, but emphasises that it depends on his colleagues. “They still have some use for the experience that I have. I hope they will tell me when they believe that I have lost it.”
Although it seems unlikely, when he does retire, he will spend more time in his garden, and read more, and travel. He goes to Greece once a year, and attends conferences around the world. That must be good - for 32 years he did not have a passport.
Update: George Bizos died on 9 September 2020, at the age of 92.