George Bizos, an anti-apartheid icon and renowned human rights lawyer who helped defend Nelson Mandela on treason charges for which he escaped the death penalty, has died at the age of 92.
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the death of a human rights lawyer on Wednesday at a press conference. “I just got the news that our country’s legal eagle, George Bizos, has passed away,” Ramaphosa said. “It is very sad for our country.”
There was no immediate word on the cause of death, or whether Bizos had been ill.
Bizos represented Mandela in the Rivonia trial, which saw Mandela and seven others sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for seeking to overthrow the racist apartheid government. Many expected the death penalty.
Ramaphosa described Bizos as one of the lawyers who “contributed enormously to the realization of our democracy”.
“He had an incisive legal mind and was one of the architects of our constitution,” the president said during an online press briefing.
Bizos arrived in South Africa as a 13-year-old Greek war refugee and has become one of its most respected lawyers.
In a long career dedicated to defending democratic values and human rights, the soft-spoken Bizos represented a range of activists against the white minority regime and then helped finalize the constitution. of post-apartheid South Africa.
A beloved national figure, he continued to work until the late 1980s. One of his last major trials saw government payments in 2014 for the families of 34 minors shot dead by police in Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg.
Bizos was in his thirties when he was chosen in 1963 to join a team of lawyers representing Mandela and other leading activists in one of the most important political trials in African history. South.
Although a junior member of the defense team, Bizos was credited with the tactic of proposing that Mandela make a statement from the dock to present the group’s case, rather than subject it to cross-examination.
The speech was electrifying, including Mandela’s oft-quoted lines about his hope for democracy: “This is an ideal I hope to live and achieve. But if need be, it’s an ideal I’m ready to die for.
Bizos would later say that he advised Mandela to avoid challenging the court over the possibility of a death sentence by adding the tempering words “if necessary”.
In his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described the lawyer as a lifelong friend and “a man who combined a likeable nature with a sharp mind.”
Bizos continued to represent Mandela throughout his 27-year prison sentence and also acted for his then-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela on more than 20 occasions.
Among his other high-profile work, Bizos has defended the family of black conscience movement leader Steve Biko, who died in police custody in 1977, and Communist leader Chris Hani, assassinated in 1993.
He was then involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created to investigate political crimes of the apartheid era.
In 2004, he represented the late leader of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, accused of plotting to kill then-President Robert Mugabe, for whom he was acquitted.
“As oppressive as a regime may be, the court is the last forum in which an oppressed person has a chance to speak out,” Bizos said in a television interview at the time.