From Rivonia to Marikana

George Bizos's eyes well up sometimes, his tears a mark of ageing rather than anything excruciating. Yet their glassiness provides an authoritative window through which to view South Africa's joy and pain.

The human rights lawyer, who turns 84 in November, has intimate knowledge of the extremes written into the country's violent past and present. He has experience of state machinations – the torture and murder in detention of anti-apartheid activists, the state security apparatus' violation of human rights and government intelligence's surveillance techniques – from representing numerous anti-apartheid activists and their families.

Bizos knows, too, the unbridled joy of liberation – his office on the 16th floor of the Bram Fischer Building in downtown Johannesburg is filled with pictures, including one of him in a bear hug with a jubilant Nelson Mandela – and, as one of the drafters of the country's Constitution, the optimistic vision of an egalitarian new South Africa.

As senior counsel at the Legal Resources Centre, Bizos has been tasked with representing the Human Rights Commission and the families of various miners who were killed in the Marikana massacre of August 16 at retired Judge Ian Farlam's commission of inquiry into the 44 deaths.

Bizos believes that Marikana was a watershed moment in post-apartheid South Africa and the violation of human rights – murder and alleged torture – that occurred there "saddened" him.

"This is a matter of concern for me because I have been at it [taking up social justice and human rights briefs] since 1954 and I never thought I would be called upon to represent people whose rights have been violated – what is it – 50 to 60 years later. I am saddened by it," he said.

He had hoped that the Constitution he helped to draft would have guided the government and the police in all their actions at Marikana and beyond.

Subpoena powers
Bizos adds that the role of the Human Rights Commission at the Farlam commission is important "because, in terms of the legislation it operates under, it has subpoena powers and our function is to impartially collect undisputed evidence for the benefit of the commission".

He served as counsel for Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu at the Rivonia trial that ran from 1963 to 1964 and represented the families of Steve Biko and Chris Hani during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so Bizos would appear ideally situated to wade through the murkiness, violence and trauma of Marikana – and any potential attempts to cover up what happened.

This is the man whom Nadine Gordimer, in the foreword to his book No One to Blame? In Pursuit of Justice in South Africa, described as a "South African civil rights lawyer of international standing, a devastating cross-examiner of apartheid's authorised torturers and killers … Bizos pursued the truth of what was being done to those who suffered under and had the courage to oppose a racist and brutal regime turned brutal tyrant. When George Bizos won a case, it was not just a professional victory – it was an imperative of a man whose deep humanity directs his life."

Bizos's nous – accumulated during his time as a bête noire of the apartheid regime – has already kicked into gear. He said Legal Resources Centre researchers were not allowed into the Lonmin-owned Andrew Saffy Memorial Hospital in Marikana where some injured miners were receiving medical attention under heavy guard: "Our people were threatened with trespassing charges, but we have our stratagems," he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

He is not keen to reveal other "stratagems" for dealing with bureaucratic authoritarianism or official obstruction for fear of "giving away too much", but it is evident that Bizos is an extremely intelligent and empathetic operator – especially in court.

Bizos remembers an apartheid-era methodology that appears to mirror allegations that crime intelligence operatives tortured arrested miners in an attempt to get them to confess that former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema had been behind the Marikana strike.

"It happened after Soweto too," said Bizos. "A few days before June 16, Winnie Mandela had held a meeting at her house with a few activists and afterwards the state had tried to pin the student uprising and subsequent deaths on her," said Bizos, who has represented Winnie Mandela on ­several occasions.

Betrayed the cause
Bizos had also, during apartheid, developed a "method" of cross-examining witnesses who may have been tortured into "giving evidence against their friends, their families or their organisation while detained for months without trial".

"They were in solitary confinement and would be brought into the witness box with the man who tortured them sitting directly opposite them. For us to say 'you have betrayed the cause' would have been counterproductive. It would have added insult to injury, because they were compelled to do it.

"What we would do was to gather personal information about them from friends and family. We would ask what would appear [to be] innocent and somewhat irrelevant questions about themselves, but it sent a message to this person that we were not against him.

"[The witness] could see that we had a lot of information about them – personal information that we could only have from the family – so they would drop what they were told to say and tell the truth."

Rummaging around his office for his diary to check the time for a lunch date with former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson, Bizos appears more the absent-minded, generous uncle than the ferocious lawyer who, during the Delmas treason trial, had one of his clients (Mosiuoa Lekota) confer upon him the nickname Matla a Tlou (one with the strength of an elephant).

So why is he still fighting the good fight? Bizos admits that he suffers from nominal aphasia – a disease that causes sufferers to have difficulty remembering people's names – and had tried to tender his resignation from the Legal Resources Centre a few years ago when he was in particularly bad shape. "But one of the clever young people here told me: 'George, you have forgotten things that we have yet to learn, so rather stay on.'"

Another anecdote is equally revealing of Bizos's undiminished appetite for taking up the cudgels to fight for social justice. He remembers being on holiday in Greece with his wife, Arethe, and receiving a fax asking whether he would represent Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai against charges of attempting a coup d'état against Robert Mugabe's government in 2002: "I asked my wife if I should take up the case, but she just looked into my eyes and said: 'Why are you asking me? You know you want to do it.'"

Humanistic impulse
Bizos retains a humanistic impulse to fight against injustice. It has made him critical of proposed legislation that is contrary to the Constitution – from leading the team that argued for the abolition of the death penalty to his recent criticism of both the Traditional Courts Bill and the Protection of State Information Bill.

He still believes that "the centre is holding" in South Africa and "the role of the vast majority of people of South Africa, the courts and the strong press will prevail".

On the apparent appointment of compliant judges to the various courts – including the Constitutional Court – Bizos, who served as a Judicial Service Commission member under both presidents Thabo Mbeki and Mandela before Jacob Zuma removed him, said: "I'm sorry to quote [former prime minister] John Vorster, who remarked on the accusation that government was appointing judges from its own stable: 'Yes, they are our people, but the problem is that after six months they begin to believe that they were appointed on merit.' I think there is an element of truth in that."

Bizos arrived in South Africa in 1941 as a 13-year-old with his father, Antoni, after escaping Nazi-occupied Greece with seven New Zealand soldiers whom they had harboured. He studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he met the likes of Mandela and Sisulu and admits to being "radicalised".

The recipient of numerous human rights and legal awards, famed lawyer Sydney Kentridge said of Bizos: "No one has done more than this great advocate to keep alive the ideal of justice in South Africa's darkest times."

Bizos is also credited for having persuaded Mandela to add the phrase "if needs be" in the latter's famous "I am prepared to die" speech on the witness stand before sentencing in the Rivonia trial. There were concerns that the trialists would be sentenced to death and that Mandela's speech would appear to be an invitation for such a sentencing.

In a previous interview, Bizos humbly submitted: "I suppose those words are my contribution to the struggle."

South Africans would believe otherwise.

Bizos continues to work towards a time when, as Steve Biko suggested: "We shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face."

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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