While Nelson Mandela will forever be known as the champion of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, there were many unsung heroes who, for decades, fought for the same cause. Teachers, workers, students and many others fought against the country’s apartheid regime from its founding in 1948 until it was brought down with South Africa’s first free and fair elections in 1994.
Lawyer George Bizos was one of them.
Bizos immigrated to South Africa as a young boy after fleeing his native Greece with his father. He came from the southern coastal town of Vasilitsi, where Allied soldiers sought refuge when the Nazis occupied Greece in 1941. Bizos’ father, the town’s former mayor, decided to help the soldiers flee and purchased a small boat from local fishermen that they used to escape into the Mediterranean Sea, where they met a flotilla of US naval ships.
From there, Bizos and his father were sent to Egypt before they eventually went to South Africa as refugees.
Outside his Johannesburg home in 2012, Bizos spoke to Al Jazeera’s Matthew Cassel about his lifelong fight for justice in South Africa.
Al Jazeera: How did your decades-long history of fighting apartheid begin?
George Bizos: In my first year at [Johannesburg’s Wits] University in 1948, seven years after I left Greece, the majority of my fellow students had either interrupted or postponed their studies in order to fight in the war and it was an important year because the National Party won the election, a whites-only election. And this was a party that was against the war effort. Their leaders applauded Nazi victories against the Russians and against other Allies. These men who were the student leaders considered it a great insult that they should now be ruled by the people who so admired their enemies.
Al Jazeera: These students were primarily white?
Bizos: Yes, less than five percent of students at Wits were black or coloured or Indian. They were white, but they hadn’t fought this war for nothing to be ruled by people who were against the war and applauded Nazism and fascism.
There were daily protests at the university with threats that the university would be closed down to black students. And the university authorities were under pressure to either [expel] black students out or have small [segregated] quarters. That had a tremendous effect on me. One of the students that led the protests was Nelson Mandela. He spoke regularly during lunch hour meetings and even though I was a first-year student (he was four years ahead), we became friends in 1948.
Al Jazeera: So you were you involved in student activism?
Bizos: I said something that was perhaps a little cheeky [during the student meetings]. I said if wanting my fellow students whatever colour they may be to be treated equally made me a leftist, I was proud to be one.
The National Party newspaper ran a headline the next morning in Afrikaans, translated: “‘Leftist and proud of it,’ so said one George Bizos yesterday in the great hall at the university.” That started me off [as an anti-apartheid activist].
Al Jazeera: Were you surprised to see your quote in the headline of the newspaper?
Bizos: Well I wasn’t a subscriber; it was brought to my attention. And leaders of the Greek community took it to my father, who was a labourer at a factory making munitions during the war, and they showed it to my father who couldn’t read or understand Afrikaans and they translated it for him. And they asked my father to rein me in because I was bringing the Greek community into disrepute.
But characteristically, my father said that I was over 20 and it wasn’t for him to tell me what to believe in. That [incident] made me a marked man.
It took another five years for me to qualify [for the South African bar]. Nelson Mandela qualified as a solicitor or attorney 18 months later.
There was the Defiance Campaign in which Nelson Mandela was [a leader], he defied apartheid laws, he was convicted and an attempt was made to deprive him of his right to practice as an attorney because of his conviction. But it was successfully argued by leaders of the bar that there was no moral turpitude in what he had done, he had done it for political reasons, which was an important decision at that time. Political offenses were different from other offenses, which were committed for personal benefit.
Because of our friendship and because of our similar beliefs, we did many cases together. I even represented him in order to unseat a magistrate that would not recognise him as a lawyer – even though his picture was in the papers and everyone knew who Mandela was.
Al Jazeera: Mandela was one of only a few black lawyers at the time, right?
Bizos: Yes, it was an event. His admission [into the bar] was an event and we succeeded in the review court and the magistrate was forced to recuse himself from the case. Because [Mandela’s] client complained that the magistrate behaved against his choice of advocate, and he wanted that lawyer to continue to defend him but the magistrate was making it impossible. The judge agreed.
When he divorced his first wife and married Winnie Mandela – she got into trouble [laughs]. And I was asked to defend her, and I succeeded and got her acquitted [in a case where she was accused of assaulting a police officer].
We won the case and there was a bus boycott, potato boycott, people were charged, there were the women’s anti-pass protests and I defended quite a number of them, mainly successfully. By the late 1950s I became known as a political defence lawyer.
Al Jazeera: Would you also describe yourself in such a way?
Bizos: I never denied it.
Al Jazeera: What I’ve always found interesting about apartheid is that there was some kind of system of justice – the laws were obviously problematic – but is it right to say that you were able to challenge them?
Bizos: It’s a good question. In a totalitarian state properly, lawyers can’t do anything. They’ll send you to Siberia, throw you out of a plane in Argentina, they would bump you off, put you in a cell in Spain or Portugal, in Italy, but in South Africa there was a vestige of judicial freedom, primarily for whites.
And the laws about unnatural deaths [in detention], for instance, there had to be an inquest. Even the apartheid regime was too ashamed to say, “no, we will not have inquests of unnatural deaths of black people”. They didn’t expect that there would be lawyers who would expose the lies that we were told in order to justify the death. The judges were pro-apartheid in the main, but what the judicial consciousness indicated to them was that they couldn’t put a stamp of approval on individual injustice.
There was this opportunity for lawyers to be of some assistance.
We were accused by academic lawyers in particular of doing nothing more than legitimising an illegitimate regime by appearing in the courts. One of them was a good friend of mine who is now a judge. And I said, “You know, your academic intellectualism doesn’t impress me. I will start acting for people when they stop knocking on my door for help.”
And this is what we did. We became unpopular. My two applications for South African citizenship were refused on the grounds that I was not a fit and proper person to become a South African citizen. I didn’t have a passport.
Al Jazeera: Could they have deported you?
Bizos: They had the right to deport me, but they didn’t. Because by the time they came around refusing my citizenship I had become quite well-known.
I avoided taking part in political protests. My forum was a courtroom and they would’ve had to justify my deportation because of political charges. And then of course came the big trial, the Rivonia trial. I was one of the team when Nelson Mandela and the nine others on trial were in danger of being sentenced to death.
I was identified by another lawyer in the case … as the tactician in the [legal] team, even though the others were my seniors. And it’s … generally known now that on the morning Nelson Mandela said he was “prepared to die” in a 40-page document he read out [in court], I persuaded him to add in ink “if need be”.
Al Jazeera: I think I remember reading about this in Mandela’s autobiography, that there was some controversy with his legal team at the time.
Bizos: Yes, because I told him you don’t want to be accused of seeking martyrdom. You made all this effort because you want to live in the sort of country that you want South Africa to become. And he agreed. He wasn’t prepared not to say “I’m prepared to die”, but he was prepared to qualify it in that way.
Al Jazeera: So they pleaded not guilty?
Bizos: No, right at the beginning Nelson Mandela said, “Guilty or not guilty, the government should be where I am [on trial]. I plead not guilty.” The judge became upset and he said, “I just want guilty or not guilty, and no speeches”. [Mandela] was defiant [laughs]. [Other ANC leaders] Walter Sisulu said the same thing, so did Govan Mbeki. Dennis Goldberg said, “I agree with my colleagues”.
Al Jazeera: How did you feel about this defiant strategy as a lawyer?
Bizos: It’s a legitimate defence that I do not recognise your legitimacy. You are an illegitimate regime. Must we bend at the knee and be slaves for the rest of our lives?
The media, not only in SA, and there were journalists sufficiently brave to record what was happening. But journalists from all over the world came and they reported, and this allegation by the regime that these were gangsters, opportunists just didn’t stick.
Al Jazeera: You knew Mandela and others who would become prominent activists for a long time. Did you get a sense that all of you would become part of this movement that would eventually shake the world?
Bizos: People don’t make long-term prophecies or arrangements [laughs], because there is no certainty. But speaking for myself, I was optimistic that there would be freedom at last. I had a sense of history.
I was optimistic that freedom is a flame that can’t be extinguished, and that optimism that was shared by many people that I defended and their relatives.
In the late 1960s, I was defending a man who was sentenced to 10 years for a political offence. His young wife shouted out from the back [of the courtroom]: “Ten years is nothing, my husband – I will wait for you!”
Al Jazeera: Did that attitude of defiance start with the Rivonia trial?
Bizos: It started long before, but the publicity and the strength of the Mandela statement underscored that we can lose battles, but eventually we will win.
Al Jazeera: Was there ever any sense that people were losing hope at any point along the way? Did you ever feel the government was too powerful, too oppressive to overcome?
Bizos: The spirit of eventual victory was there. I saw Nelson Mandela regularly in jail. Never once did he express any doubt that there wouldn’t be freedom during his lifetime. … Characteristically, Mandela said, I want to be the last political prisoner that is released. I won’t go out unless you release all prisoners. And I will do it in consultation with those who are in exile, and it has to be a peaceful settlement.
Al Jazeera: As a lawyer committed to social justice, what’s your take on the reconciliation process that led to the end of the apartheid era in 1994?
Bizos: I don’t go as far as Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu by saying the form of amnesties were justice, it’s not justice. It’s a compromise. The religious conviction of Bishop Tutu does not persuade me that the people who killed [Steve] Biko [and other anti-apartheid activists] should go scot-free.
I opposed high-profile applications for amnesty – successfully for most, except one. I am asked, is it justice? And I say, “No, it’s not justice, but it’s a solution to a very long, vexed problem”.
And I pose the question: If we did not enter into that compromise, the alternative would’ve been racially inspired civil war. How many people would’ve died? To what end? To ruin the country? To have hundreds if not thousands of deaths?
I’m disappointed that even those who were refused amnesty, and against whom there is evidence that they committed the crimes, were not prosecuted. The government says that they haven’t got the resources; I think that that is an injustice. And the legal resources for whom I’m working went to court to actually set aside that policy that those who applied and were refused amnesty. But we have to live with it.
It’s a sore point with me. If I may quote [Shakespeare’s] Hamlet, “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind”.