Birthday tea with Bizos

He is arguably South Africa’s most popular human rights advocate, and he is certainly the country’s most enduring.

This week George Bizos SC turned 80 and he had a few wise words for old friends, comrades and clients — in and out of the ANC — who are hurling ”metaphorical” insults at one another: ”Leave the metaphors to the poets.”

Bizos, who was speaking to the Mail & Guardian a few days before his gala birthday dinner at the Sandton Convention Centre, finds the sniping going on between ANC and Congress of the People (Cope) members upsetting. But then the veteran lawyer’s relationship with the liberation movement goes back to a time when the lines between the good guys and bad guys were straighter.

”I am asked ‘whose side are you on?’ and my answer is a simple one. If your friends are getting a divorce you don’t take sides, you empathise with both sides in the hope that they will sort things out for themselves, and that even if the divorce comes they don’t stop talking to each other.”

Bizos offers us coffee in the cosy study overlooking the garden of his Parktown North house. Two large boxes of 80th birthday cards are moved to make space in the small room. ”Teatime” is a pleasantly old-fashioned affair: there are china cups and saucers, the sugar bowl is silver and there is a plate of the big man’s beloved Greek cookies. Brushing crumbs from his trousers, Bizos says he remains optimistic that the country will overcome the current political turbulence.

He says that he is not prepared to judge anyone involved as he has defended many of them in court and values their integrity.

It was, after all, Cope leader Mosiuoa ”Terror” Lekota who, as an accused in the 1980s Delmas treason trial, nicknamed Bizos Matla a Tlou (one having the strength of an elephant) for his perseverance during the four-year trial. Lekota was in the dock with other ANC leaders such as Popo Molefe and Frank Chikane Director General in the presidency.

This past Wednesday a scholarship and bursary fund was launched in Bizos’s name at a fundraising dinner hosted by Saheti, the Greek school in Bedfordview, which Bizos helped to start in 1974 and which his grandchildren attended. A week earlier the Saheti children sang Zulu songs to an elated Bizos as part of their Greek mythology-themed birthday party — with its very own big-boned Zulu boy portraying Zeus.

Over 54 years, Bizos’s legal defence of liberation activists spans a list that includes the famous Rivonia trialists Govan Mbeki, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, as well as ordinary South Africans who were detained for ”crossing at a red robot on Louis Botha Avenue at 4am in the morning because they were walking to work” during the Alexandra bus boycotts.

During the 1964 Rivonia trial when the accused faced death sentences, Bizos was part of the legal team that conceded to a request by Mandela and others to make passionate speeches about their involvement in the struggle as members of the ANC.

He is personally credited with contributing a small, but powerful disclaimer to Mandela’s famous ”I am prepared to die” speech.

”The only words I claim responsibility for are in the last paragraph when he said ‘I am prepared to die’. I said Nelson, surely you want to live and to see it [freedom] accomplished? Well, I said, just add ‘if needs be’ — that should take away the heat.”

On seeing the speech, says Bizos, one of the defence lawyers, Harold Hanson, looked at it and remarked ”if this is what he is going to say then take him out of the dock and just hand him to the executioner”.

”But it worked the other way,” says Bizos.

Bizos has been married to Arethe ”Rita” Bizos for as long as he has practised law and together they have three sons.

George Bizos was born in the tiny Greek village of Vasilitsi, where his father, Antoni, was the mayor.

In 1941, during the German occupation of Greece, Antoni and 13-year-old George fled the island in a small boat with seven New Zealand soldiers. The group was eventually picked up by a British warship heading for the battle of Crete after enduring hours in a leaking boat.

”We spent a lot of time throwing salt water overboard because the sea was a bit rough,” Bizos reminisces.

After the Battle of Crete Bizos and his father were taken to Alexandria in Egypt. In August of 1941, says Bizos, they were part of a group ”evacuated” to Durban.

It was in Durban that Bizos, who came from what he terms a ”homogeneous” farming village, would experience something that would leave a lasting impression and fuel his desire to fight injustice.

He saw a group of rickshaw ”runners” ferrying whites in their makeshift carriages. ”I was appalled, they were being treated as if they were draught animals,” says Bizos.

The event left such an mark on the young Bizos that, years later on a family holiday in Durban, he wouldn’t let his young children take a ride on the rickshaws, which had become a major tourist attraction.

Bizos senior was offered a job by steel giant Iscor and had to relocate to a single room in Pretoria, leaving young George in the care of friends who owned a classic Greek café in Johannesburg.

”I was working behind the counter and I couldn’t speak English. I didn’t go to school for two-and-a-half-years,” says Bizos.

One fateful day a young woman whom he would later learn was Cecilia Feinstein, walked into the Café where Bizos, now 15, was working. She recognised him as the young man who had been featured in a 1941 Sunday Times article under the headline Greek Farmer’s Odyssey. Bizos would echo this headline in his 2007 autobiography An Odyssey to Freedom.

Feinstein, a teacher, took it upon herself to ensure that the teenager was enrolled in school and helped him learn English.

In 1948, after matriculating from Athlone Boys High — and meeting the government requirement for passing Afrikaans — Bizos enrolled for a Bachelor of Arts degree at Wits University and was instantly enthralled by political theory. The year 1948 was significant: it ignited the young Bizos’s passion for human rights when, across the Atlantic, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was passed. But it was also the year the National Party came to power and began to put its apartheid policies in place.

While at Wits, Bizos says that he became ”radicalised” and forged his lifetime bond with Mandela and other struggle stalwarts such as the late teacher and lawyer, Duma Nokwe. By the time he went to practise law, his role as one of the liberation movement’s preferred lawyers was practically ”pre-ordained”, he says, as he already had a reputation as a ”radical leftie”.

His reputation was further sealed after a public spat — much to the dismay of his Greek immigrant community — with the then prime minister DF Malan who attributed anti-government protests at Wits ”to a bunch of leftists”.

The next day Bizos made a speech in which he said that if insisting on equal treatment for his fellow black students made him a leftist, then he was proud to be one.

It made headlines.

The 80-year-old Bizos, who says his daughters-in-law tell him to learn to say ”no”, looks as strong as an ox.

He is an acting judge at the Johannesburg High Court at an age when most retired judges would rather be pruning roses.

”I am very happy with my lot,” he says when asked what he would wish for himself on his birthday.

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