George Bizos’ two Ithacas

George Bizos’ two Ithacas

I met George Bizos when I was too young to remember it. He and my father had known each other for years, as young members of South Africa’s Greek community. I was friends with “Uncle George’s” third son, Alexi, who was my age. My first memories of George are from some Sunday lunches at his mother-in-law’s house. He would always prepare a big salad, made from vegetables that he grew himself.

I also remember him raising funds for the founding of a school that would embody the ideals of Hellenic education to the children of all races, in a country in which a harsh system of racial discrimination had been imposed. Uncle George was a shining example of a diaspora Greek who has succeeded in his new country while his love for his birthplace remains undimmed. What was not visible was that below the homely image – the lush moustache, the sparkling, penetrating gaze, the generosity and kindness – beat the heart of a brave and tireless fighter for justice, freedom and dignity for all of South Africa’s people. 

Growing up, I learned that Bizos was a member of the legal team that defended Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) in the great trial in which, in 1964, they were found guilty for their struggle against apartheid.

They were condemned to life imprisonment, evading the death sentence which the prosecution wanted. Only many years later did most of us learn of the depth of the friendship between Mandela and Bizos (from when they were law students at the same university) and the role that Bizos played during Mandela’s 27 years in prison, supporting his family, defending the victims of state violence or representing their families in every corner of the land. In his autobiography, Mandela notes that he asked Bizos to check out a prospective groom of one of his daughters because, being in prison, he could not do so himself.

Bizos also acted as a link between Mandela and the exiled leadership of the ANC during the jailed leader’s negotiations with the government, which led to Mandela’s release and free elections a few years later. By then, George Bizos, or Uncle George, had become a household name in South Africa, for his great contribution to the defense of human rights. With his incisive mind, his skill as a cross-examiner, his knowledge of the law, his empathy with victims, his outrage at injustice and his solid grounding in the classics, he would often turn a court into a showcase of the apartheid regime’s crimes.

After the end of apartheid, he made significant contributions to the writing of a new constitution and a Bill of Rights, arguing for the abolition of the death penalty and succeeding. He spent many productive years at the Legal Resources Center, which provides free services to the vulnerable and marginalized. After the ANC won elections, he represented victims of apartheid-era crimes at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and also fought for justice for the families of 34 striking miners killed by police in 2012. Throughout his life, he showed the importance of remaining true to the ideal of justice, irrespective of who we are, where we are and who is in government.

George had left his village of Vasilitsi in the Peloponnese, in Nazi-occupied Greece, in 1941, when he was 13. He accompanied his father Anthony in his effort to get seven stranded New Zealand soldiers to Crete by boat. After several harrowing days and nights in a stormy sea, the group was picked up by a British warship and taken to Egypt. From there, father and son went to South Africa. George was only able to visit Greece again in 1972, when he was finally granted South African citizenship by a grudging government.

Despite his leaving Greece at an early age, the principles of democracy and justice, the teachings of Greek philosophy and literature, were his guiding lights through his life. In his speech from the dock in the 1964 trial, Mandela was planning to say that he was prepared to die for the “ideal of a democratic and free society.” Bizos, arguing that Socrates, in his Apology, had provoked his judges into sentencing him to death, persuaded Mandela to add the words “if needs be” to his declaration. The two would also discuss justice, as in the statement by Pericles (quoted by Thucydides) that those who try to repeal laws should remember “that there may come a time when they too will be in danger and need their protection.” With regard to philosophy, “The stoics in particular had a significant influence on the development of Nelson’s political views,” Bizos wrote in “65 Years of Friendship: A Memoir of my Friendship with Nelson Mandela” (2017).

Bizos married Rita Daflos, an artist, in 1954, the year he was admitted to the bar. They shared a full and happy life together. They had three sons: Kimon and Damon, both surgeons, and Alexi, an engineer; they had seven grandchildren. Rita died in 2017. In “65 Years of Friendship,” he contemplates her death and that of Mandela four years earlier, and writes, “I dream that the bell may soon toll for me.”

George Bizos made Greeks everywhere proud, although in the beginning few in South Africa were on his side. In his life and work he displayed the wealth of ancient Greece’s legacy and the modern Greeks’ accomplishments. He was present at every call for assistance, both in South Africa and in Greece. He honored both countries and they honored him. His autobiography, “Odyssey to Freedom” (2007), is a significant chapter in the great, developing book of the Greek diaspora. At its end, he measures his life against the final lines of his friend Kimon Friar’s translation of Cavafy’s “Ithaca.”

Poor though you may find her, Ithaca has not deceived you.

Now that you have become so wise, so full of experience,

You will have understood the meaning of an Ithaca.

“I saw that I straddled both the country that gave me birth and the other that adopted me. I have made them both my Ithaca. I have shared their joys and sorrows,” Bizos wrote. “I have always kept both Ithacas in mind. Perhaps I have become wise; I have surely gained much experience. And this I can now say with certainty: These Ithacas have not deceived me.”

George Bizos died on Wednesday, September 9, 2020, at his home in Johannesburg, aged 92. His sister, Vaso Bizos, died one day after him, in Vasilitsi. His funeral with state honors will take place on Thursday, from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Constantine and Helen, Johannesburg.