Greek patriarch of the struggle

George Bizos would have been running a taverna somewhere in Corfu (cooking is one of his favourite pastimes) had World War II not caused him to flee Nazi-occupied Greece. I can picture him negotiating his walrus-like bulk between tables packed with sunburnt tourists, as he regales them with tales of his sexual exploits.

Instead this garrulous figure has emerged as the doyen of South African activists court cases from Nelson Mandelas historic Rivonia trial to the recent Chris Hani inquest. His list of satisfied clients reads like a whos who of the anti- apartheid movement, and he is now part of the presidents elite inner circle.

“He’s my friend and I see him often,” he says of Madiba. “Your people call me his confidant, but I don’t know about that.” There is however, pride in his voice as he admits that the president often calls him early in the morning because he has jail habits.

But for all this, Bizos (69) appears to be a modest man. Not for him the reward of high office: he turned down an African National Congress nomination to become an MP, and let it be known he was not available for a judgeship, though he accepted Mandela’s appointment to sit on the panel that selects judges.

“I’m too old to change,” he says as we sit in his office at the Legal Resources Centre in downtown Johannesburg. “I want to continue the work I do here for people who cant otherwise afford to pay lawyers. Its what I do best.”

Whether it be representing a domestic worker unfairly sacked, or the ANC in the Shell House shooting, the centre prides itself on supporting causes. And Bizos has been its leading light since 1991. His wealth comes from investments in his brothers business.

The one blot on Bizoss copybook seems to be the gung-ho way he defended Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in the Stompie Seipei kidnapping trial. Many people complained about his apparently homophobic cross- examination of Methodist preacher Paul Verryn.

I’ve never seen the man in action, but I suspect that being cross-examined by Bizos is rather like been savaged by a teddy bear; perhaps therein lies his ability to devastate witnesses.

Does he have any regrets about the Madikizela-Mandela trial? We defend people and we are concerned that they should get as fair a trial as possible. I represented her to the best of my ability, he replies crisply.

Would he do it again if she is indicted for murder? “No.” Then a little smile under his bushy mustache: “Only because I have no time.” I stare quizzically at him. “I’ve a heavy workload with amnesty applications … and in any case, I’ve not been asked. The words came out in a rush.”

Bizos insists that he not only thought her innocent at the time, but says he regards Madikizela-Mandela as a victim, who stood up courageously against apartheid. He would not comment further. “Just say that I’m circumspect about discussing my erstwhile clients.”

It is no surprise that Bizos has evolved into one of this country’s most tenacious human rights advocates.

His family’s most treasured possession until the advent of World War II was an ancient rifle which his great-great-grandfather used to fight the Greek war of independence. Unfortunately, it was buried unprotected to prevent it from being looted by the Germans, and ruined.

The need to fight for democracy flows through his arteries. His father, mayor of the village of Vasilidse on the south- western cape of mainland Greece, smuggled Allied soldiers out of the country when the Germans invaded. He was rewarded with safe passage in 1941 to another country with his eldest son, 13-year-old George.

“I come from a background where every day was struggle,” says Bizos. “The village I was born in had no running water, no electricity, only one phone and one teacher for 140 children ranging from standard one to four all in one class.”

Life was tough, but he, his two brothers and one sister never starved and they always had a roof over their heads. “From the day of my arrival in Durban, when I saw black men drawing rickshaws with goods or passengers, I realised that something was not quite right. In a way, it was my first awareness of the injustices heaped upon Africans.”

Father and son had chosen South Africa because they had been told diamonds could be picked up on the streets. Little did they know that they would be regarded as little more than white kaffirs by the ascending Afrikaners.

So when Bizos senior and junior alighted from a train in Johannesburg with other refugees, they were met by an hysterical band of the Nazi sympathisers, the Ossewabrandwag, waving banners saying that Jan Smuts was bringing the trash of Europe to South Africa.

By the time young Bizos enrolled at the University of the Witswatersrand (quite a feat considering that he did not go to school during his first two years in the country) he was ready to become radicalised. He began to consort with members of the youth league, including Mandela, Nthatho Motlana, Walter Sisulu and others. “I felt humbled that people like them were prepared to die for democracy,” he says in the distinct Greek accent he never managed to lose.

“I don’t think its particularly heavy,” suggests Bizos. Neither does wife Areti. She rejects suggestions that Marlon Brando’s advocate character in the film A Dry White Season was based on Bizos. “She says I’m more handsome, not as fat as him and that I speak more clearly,” chuckles Bizos. Ah, the power of love, thought I.

He has been called South Africa’s own Rumpole of the Bailey, though that has more to do with girth than legal experience. I ask what percentage of him is lawyer and what is advocate? “I represent people in court whose cause is just, and trying to prove that what they did was not an offence, or if they did commit an offence, then there was no moral terpitude in their conduct,” he responds.

“If one can identify with that person, I think you are being both a good lawyer and a good activist.” Bizos speaks with the same slow and ponderous delivery he uses in court as if he wanted to make sure I understood every word.

Could one not be a good lawyer without being involved with the cause? Big drooping brown eyes are fixed on me. “Many of my colleagues did a very good job in doing just that. But I was sometimes annoyed when some of them found it necessary to place on the record that they did not agree with their clients political beliefs. I never said it. I never used but.”

Being a lawyer under apartheid was inextricably interwoven, he believes, with being an activist albeit one who never partook in any illegal activity. Not that this protected him from the ire of the apartheid regime. BJ Vorster, when minister of justice, pointedly warned him on one occasion that his rope was getting shorter.

A majority of the white public considered me not as a lawyer, but as part of the revolutionary struggle. It didnt bother me. His rope never tightened because he kept his nose clean. I never did anything illegal … I didnt even commit adultery, he chuckles.
Heres my opening to find out if he really is an unreconstructed man, as some women claim.

He muses; “You mean am I a chauvinist?” I nod. “I cultivate that perception,” replies Bizos, lounging back in his chair and amplifying his mountainous stomach. There is a twinkle in his liquid eyes. I suspect that behind this machismo lies not just a lifelong democrat, but a closet feminist. Then again, maybe its that Greek taverna owner laughing at me.

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