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His soft voice, silvery mustache, and gentle demeanor gave George Bizos, the lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela and who died at 92, the appearance of a retired country doctor.
And indeed, in person, he was notoriously courteous and respectful. No air and no graces – and no easy retirement – for a man who could easily have rejoiced in his hard-earned reputation as a central figure in South Africa’s long struggle against apartheid.
But for most of the fighters of his generation, a life of service meant exactly that – a life.
And George Bizos remained active and outspoken into his tenth decade.
The air of calm politeness which accompanied him to the end was not false.
But it masked a fierce and uncompromising dedication to justice and human rights, and the belief that the law was a weapon which, used properly, had at least as much power as guns and speeches.
I have met him several times over the last two decades of his life, to ask him about stolen elections in Zimbabwe – his simple maxim that an election is useless unless both sides agree to the result, stuck with me – about his role as a difficult family mediator. battles over Mandela’s will and determination to fight for justice for the families of those shot by police in the 2012 Marikana murders.
The instinct of the lawyer
But it’s a trip I took with him ten years ago, to see his first law firm, in downtown Johannesburg, that comes to mind now. I remember following Bizos as he slowly crossed Fox Street to a seedy looking cafe.
Grateful smiles followed in his wake as he moved through the lunchtime crowd.
The Chinese behind the cash register complained about problems in the region.
“There is an abandoned building on the next block. Chancellor House. It’s full of criminals, ”he said.
Bizos’ crumpled back straightened. His advocacy instinct alerted.
“This house,” he explained patiently, “is occupied by dozens of squatters who have no other accommodation.
“They shouldn’t be casually classified as criminals. “
It was 50 years since Bizos first bought lunch at this cafe.
He and his friend Nelson Mandela would come at least once a week to grab some pies and bring them back to Mandela’s office around the corner.
As a white man – born in Greece – Bizos could have eaten at the cafe.
But at that time, black people were not allowed to sit here.
On the way out that day, two men in work clothes arrested Bizos and asked if they could shake his hand.
‘A lot of memories’
One block on Fox Street, across from the Magistrates’ Court, was the abandoned three-story building the Chinese complained about.
The walls were blackened with fire. Half a dozen young men stood outside. There was a strong smell of marijuana and trash.
“Lots of memories,” said Bizos, smiling at the crowd then slowly climbing up the dark stairwell of Chancellor House, to the waterlogged landing on the first floor.
Deep inside – a makeshift door has opened into what was once Mandela’s office – the very first black law firm in South Africa – a place once besieged by clients.
It was employed at the time by an unemployed 38-year-old electrician – Dick Macomary – and his growing family. There was a mattress on the floor. Pots and Pans. Some clothes drying through closed windows.
“Sorry,” Mr. Macomary said, deleting some old newspapers. “It’s a special place. I just don’t have the power to make him nicer. “
Bizos looked around in the dark.
“If we brought Mr. Mandela here now, it would break his heart,” he said.
Bizos pointed to a corner of Mr. Macomary’s room.
“We want to set up computers here and a library there,” he said.
The plan was to turn Chancellor House into a legal resource center for young black lawyers.
“Not a mausoleum, but something alive. Something to honor Mr. Mandela. Hopefully this will happen in my lifetime – and his, ”Bizos said.
Mr. Macomary nodded enthusiastically.
‘I hate generalizations’
But there had been delays. The city council was supposed to provide alternative housing for the sixty or so people living in Chancellor House.
But legal negotiations had dragged on for more than a decade.
“It’s not good for you and it’s not good for Mr. Mandela. City council has a reputation for being a bit late, to say the least. It’s almost uneasy. No one seems to take responsibility for it, ”sighed Bizos.
I asked him if Chancellor House’s plight spoke of modern South Africa – its growing struggles against corruption, poor service delivery and a stagnant economy.
“I hate generalizations,” he says.
And he was right, of course. Chancellor House would finally be renovated as he had hoped.
A lifetime of service
- Bizos arrived in South Africa in 1941 at the age of 13, fleeing Nazi-occupied Greece
- Lost his studies for a while after arriving in Johannesburg without English
- He then trained as a lawyer, graduating in 1950
- Studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where he met Nelson Mandela, another law student
- Represented some of the country’s best-known political activists during the apartheid years
- Part of the team that defended Mandela and others at the Rivonia trial in 1964, when they were accused of seeking to overthrow the apartheid government
- Credited with adding the words “if any” to Mandela’s famous speech at the trial, in which he said he was ready to die
- Became one of the architects of South Africa’s new constitution after the end of apartheid in 1994
- Representation of families of anti-apartheid activists killed during apartheid at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
- In 2004, the late Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was acquitted of conspiracy to kill then-President Robert Mugabe.
- In one of his last major trials, he secured government payments for the families of 34 Marikana mine workers killed by South African police in 2012.
We walked east along Fox Street towards the Central Business District.
“Look at this,” he said pointing to Main Street. “It was a slum. Now it’s like a French boulevard with sidewalk cafes. “
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And it was true – large parts of central Johannesburg were, and still are, changing dramatically.
The businesses that were driven out by crime in the 1990s are now coming back.
A group of lawyers standing outside the Magistrates’ Court turned and smiled at Bizos as he passed in the sun.
“I am optimistic for South Africa,” he said.
“But you have to keep in mind that I was optimistic in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and so on. I have always been an optimist. “
- Nelson Mandela
- South Africa