GEORGE BIZOS, who fled the Nazi occupation of his native Greece at age 13 to become one of South Africa’s most prominent human rights lawyers, championing Black people who were denied those rights and devising a three-word phrase that may have shielded his client and friend Nelson Mandela from execution, died on Wednesday. He was 92.
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in a televised news briefing. No cause
was given, but he said Bizos’s health had recently begun to fail, his
family. Bizos, who lived in Johannesburg, died at his home.
Over a long and combative career, Bizos was one of only a handful of
lawyers who sought redress for victims of racial separation through the
very legal system that sanctioned it.
While deeply flawed by the pervasive prejudice of the times, South Africa’s
legal establishment did offer some slim protection to the accused under a
white minority regime that liked to boast of a commitment to Western values.
In his lawyer’s black robes and starched white bib, Bizos honed his skills
throughout the 1950s in remote rural courthouses, where the authorities
sought to deploy apartheid law against little-known offenders, long before
the well-publicized trials that cemented his reputation.
In his first draft, Bizos said, Mandela had written that he was prepared
to die for “the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons
live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”
Bizos was third figure from the Rivonia trial to die this year. The others
were the last two surviving co-defendants, Andrew Mlangeni who died in
July, and Denis Goldberg — the only white defendant in the group — who died
He represented the families of leading foes of apartheid, including Matthew
Goniwe, an educator who was one of three activists murdered by the police
in 1985. They were known as the Cradock Four, named for the small,
segregated township in the Eastern Cape region where they had built a
challenge to white rule.
For decades Bizos represented Winnie Madikizela- Mandela, a friend and
activist in her own right during the imprisonment of Mandela, her husband.
Soon after his release in 1990, the marriage ended in a bitter divorce, and
Madikizela-Mandela faced charges related to the harsh mistreatment of boys
staying at her home in Soweto.
The body of one of them, Stompie Seipei, 14, was later found in a field
with his throat cut. Although Madikizela-Mandela was not charged in the
killing, the boy’s fate became a byword for the brutal behavior of her
bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club.
In early 1991 she was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for kidnapping
and assault, but the sentence was reduced on appeal.
The charges, Bizos suggested in his memoir, were part of a progressive
diminution of Madikizela-Mandela’s stature and judgment. “For Nelson, her
family, the movement and the nation,” he said, the damage to her reputation
in the late 1980s and onward “was a serious embarrassment.”
Bizos’s close association with the travails of South Africans as they
fought against apartheid and emerged from it seemed an improbable destiny
for a man whose Mediterranean roots endured in a love of modern Greek
poetry and in his marriage to a fellow Greek, Arethe Daflos, an artist who
died in 2017. They had three sons, Kimon, Damon and Alexi, who survive him,
as do seven grandchildren.
Such was his commitment to his heritage that, in 1974, Bizos took the lead
in founding a racially-integrated Hellenic school in South Africa.
His father found work in a munitions factory in Pretoria, the capital, and
later worked as a shop assistant there, while his son stayed with Greek
friends of the family in Johannesburg. After struggling to learn Afrikaans
and English while working as a shop assistant, and after scraping together
tuition money, George Bizos enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand
in Johannesburg.He completed his law degree in 1950, two years after the National Party
came to power and began codifying apartheid. He was admitted to the
Johannesburg bar in 1954.