Greek continues to fight injustice

JOHANNESBURG – George Bizos is wending his way through street peddlers and lunchtime pedestrians when heads start to turn on the crowded downtown sidewalk. Quickly come shouts of «Umeli Omkhulu» – the Big Lawyer. The gawkers aren’t referring to Bizos’s limited height, nor the thick torso of the Greek-born attorney. Nelson Mandela may be the international face of South Africa’s transformation from oppressive white rule to a multiracial democracy, but 75-year-old Bizos is honored here as an important combatant in the struggle to topple apartheid. «We’ve never met, but I want to shake your hand,» a young man tells him. «When others were sitting pretty, you stood up for justice.” For four decades, Bizos was involved in almost every legal aspect of the anti-apartheid movement, representing an honor roll of its leaders – Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and many others, along with the families of slain activists, such as Steve Biko and Chris Hani. At a time when opposing apartheid meant harassment or even death, his court challenges against torture and assassinations by state security officers helped publicize government abuses. He was known for the relentless questioning of police and military officers that could reduce hardened killers to stammering or even sobbing in the witness chair. Once apartheid ended and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission probed apartheid-era crimes and considered amnesty applications, Bizos provided much-needed legitimacy by opposing a blanket amnesty and challenging claims from known security force killers. «No South African lawyer did more to challenge the abuse of power by the security forces under apartheid,» Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson of South Africa’s new Constitutional Court wrote in 1998. Bizos also helped draft the movement’s major historical documents, including the Freedom Charter of 1955 that established principles for a future non-racial society and South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution a decade ago. The fight against apartheid was won, but the graying Bizos hasn’t slowed down. He still tackles tough cases, representing opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in neighboring Zimbabwe against treason charges, widely perceived as an attempt by the black-led government to quash its foes. Asked if the Tsvangirai case differed from the anti-apartheid fight, Bizos says, «It was substantially similar, except that in Zimbabwe, the judiciary is under such tremendous stress that, in its way, it is much worse than it ever was in South Africa.» That doesn’t dim his resolve. «For as long as people ask us to do these cases, or we’re asked by their loved ones to take the cases when they are incommunicado, we will not stop,» Bizos says. His influence on South African history has been extensive. Even Mandela’s most famous speech, delivered 40 years ago in a Pretoria courtroom where he and other anti-apartheid leaders faced an expected death sentence, bore the Bizos touch. «I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities,» Mandela told the hushed court. «It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.» Bizos persuaded Mandela to insert the words «if needs be.» «I said, ‘Nelson, you may be accused of seeking martyrdom,’» Bizos recalls. «’You don’t want to die. You want to live and see this accomplished.’» Mandela did live, serving 27 years in prison to become South Africa’s first black president and a revered statesman. To another defendant in the trial, Bizos was a logical choice to represent the activists of the then-banned African National Congress (ANC). «We had to get lawyers who were reliable, who were, if I may call it, our men,» says Ahmed Kathrada, a close associate of Mandela. Bizos was definitely an ANC man, but through words rather than deeds. He never joined the party or played an obvious political role, focusing his efforts on the legal aspects of fighting apartheid. That helped prevent his arrest, or worse, during the decades he represented victims of the increasingly repressive white government. He was harassed, denied citizenship for 31 years and followed around town, but he acknowledges now he «got off lightly.» «They were convinced that I was part of the underground movement, but I was very careful that there would be no evidence,» he says. Still, Bizos visibly challenged the power structure, once illegally sharing law chambers with black lawyer Duma Nokwe, an ANC secretary-general who later died in exile. The government chose not to interfere, and the office became a meeting place for ANC leaders. Seeds of activism sprouted early for Bizos when his father was ousted as mayor of his Greek village of Vasilitsi, near Kalamata, in the fascist tide that swept Europe in the 1930s. In 1941, his father helped New Zealand soldiers escape by boat from German-occupied territory, an act punishable by death. Then 13, Bizos refused to stay behind with his mother and siblings. «I threatened I would swim behind the boat if he didn’t take me,» Bizos says. They ended up in Egypt, where his father was held in a refugee camp and Bizos went to a Greek orphanage, and then on to South Africa. In 1948, at age 19, he entered the University of the Witwatersrand, meeting Mandela and other students. He already had a reputation as a liberal activist when he became a lawyer in 1954. Glasses perched on the end of his nose, the soft-spoken Bizos has an unpretentious air. His attire is modest – a dark, pinstripe suit jacket, dark trousers, blue and white striped shirt and blue pattern tie, frayed along the edge. His watch has a worn brown leather strap. He’s considered the archetypal South African political lawyer, the influence for Marlon Brando’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of a shrewd, sarcastic attorney battling a stacked legal system in the film version of Andre Brink’s «A Dry White Season.» Asked about that, Bizos responds, «My wife says that I’m more handsome and speak more clearly than Brando.»