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His life was gentle – George Bizos

Anti-apartheid activist and human rights champion Advocate George Bizos passed away on Wednesday at the age of 92. Mike Pothier writes this tribute to his personal hero, remembering that he was someone who embodied the kind of integrity we need so badly in SA today.

“His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man.’”

These words, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, have been applied to more than one South African lawyer. They can be found on top of Table Mountain, on a plaque dedicated to Jan Smuts; and they provided the title for a long-forgotten book about an equally long-forgotten, but once legendary, Cape advocate, Beauclerk Upington.

But they could surely never be more appropriately applied to anyone, lawyer or otherwise, than to George Bizos. He was in the best sense a gentle man. Soft-spoken, unflashy, reflective, but with the best elements ‘mix’d in him’: an unshakeable sense of justice; deep courage in the face of the Apartheid apparatus; a disregard for status; and always a laugh and some or other recollection of a moment of human warmth.  

With his passing, we are left with only one living link to the famous Rivonia trial. Denis Goldberg and Andrew Mlangeni, the last of the trialists, died this year; Bizos joins the other deceased members of the defence team that included Bram Fischer, Arthur Chaskalson and the attorney Joel Joffe. Only Denis Kuny, another great anti-apartheid lawyer, remains.

Bizos’ death constitutes a coda to one of the most seminal legal and political episodes in our country’s history; and it brings to an end a life of unstinting service and dedication to justice. In the hours after his death became known it was striking to see how often the word ‘humane’ was used, as lawyers, politicians and journalists reflected on his life. There can hardly be a better compliment than that.

He was also a humble man. I experienced that on the only occasion that I encountered him in my work as an advocate. A client of mine wanted to construct a constitutional case around an aspect of the law pertaining to land. If successful, the envisaged litigation might completely alter the approach to land ownership and, with that, to land reform. The only problem was that, in my opinion, the Constitution did not support the client’s cause; his quest was political, not legal.

We heard that George Bizos was coming to Cape Town on legal business, and arranged to consult with him at his hotel. We put the case to him at some length and, while he supported the end my client had in mind, he confirmed that the Constitution did not provide the means to achieve it.

A few days later I received a phone call from Mr Bizos. He asked very delicately about my client’s ability to pay for the consultation; if he was not in a position to pay, I should say so. If he was, did I think that R2 000 would be an acceptable fee? Now, at that time, Senior Counsel of one tenth of George Bizos’ experience and ability were happily charging double or triple that amount for such a consultation. When I remarked that this seemed to be a very low figure he laughed and said, “Yes, many of my colleagues at the Johannesburg Bar think so too, and they’re not happy about it!”

The legal profession in South Africa is going through a difficult time at the moment. There are shocking allegations concerning senior judges in the Western Cape High Court; more lawyers than usual seem to be facing accusations of financial or other impropriety; the National Prosecuting Authority was severely compromised by State Capture and is only slowly recovering.

For more than 70 years George Bizos personified commitment and dedication to the rule of law and to the values of justice and humanity. His contribution to South Africa’s journey towards freedom and democracy was immense. And so, to return to Shakespeare,

“According to his virtue let us treat him,
With all respect and rites of burial.”      

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.