George Bizos was born in 1927 in Vasilitsi, near Koroni in the south of Greece. During World War II, when the Germans occupied Greece in 1941, the young Bizos was at school in Kalamata, which was near his home town, Vasilitsi, where his father was a prominent citizen, having been the mayor at one time.
In 1941, when Bizos was thirteen years old, seven allied soldiers from New Zealand were being sheltered in his hometown, and the family was warned that there might be reprisals against his father. His father arranged for someone to get a permit to take a boat out of the harbour, and with others they set out for Crete. They were picked up from an open boat off Crete, from where they were taken to a refugee camp in Alexandria, Egypt where they stayed for about two months in mid-1941. His father was housed in a camp at the sports club on Gezira [Zamalek] island in Cairo, and the young Bizos was sent to stay at a Greek orphanage in Alexandria, where he stayed for about a month. Refugees were being moved out, with single people being sent to India and families being sent to South Africa. They went by train to Suez and travelled on the Ile de France to Durban.
Father and son arrived in South Africa in 1941 after they were picked up by a Royal Navy battleship. They first landed in Durban, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal - KZN) and later moved to Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng) where they were welcomed by the local Greek community. In Johannesburg, his father first tried his hand at running a shop but was not successful at this and was forced to seek employment at a factory. The rest of the family joined them in South Africa only in the l950s.
Bizos enrolled for a law degree at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, Transvaal. At Wits he was elected onto the Students Representative Council (SRC), which included, among other students, Lionel Forman and Harold Wolpe. Due to his political activism while still a student, his citizenship was denied in a letter that described him as ‘not fit and proper to become a South African’. The ban lasted over 30 years. “There comes a time in the life of all people when you either succumb or you fight,” he said of joining the liberation effort.
In 1950 he completed his law degree at the University of Witwatersrand. In 1954 he was admitted to the Johannesburg Bar. He served as an Advocate in Johannesburg until 1990 when he worked as a counsel to 40 lawyers at the Legal Resources Centre and the Constitutional Litigation Unit. Bizos dedicated his working life to fight for basic human rights. After the collapse of the Apartheid he turned his fight into ensuring that all South Africans enjoyed those rights enshrined and guaranteed by the democratic constitution.
During his legal career, the soft spoken Bizos represented numerous activists in high profile political trials. He represented Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and the other accused in the 1963 Rivonia Trial. He first met Mandela at the University of Witwatersrand where they were both studying law.
As a member of the legal team, made up of Joel Joffe, Bram Fischer, Vernon Berrangé, Arthur Chaskalson and Harold Hanson, representing the accused in the Rivonia Trial, Bizos met with Mandela in a dark cell reserved for those about to appear in court. Bizos shared his opinion with Mandela:
I said you know this last paragraph, the one that declares that you are prepared to die, it may become counterproductive. I don’t think that the occasion is appropriate to say, in an unqualified way, that you are prepared to die. You will be accused of challenging the authority, you will be accused of seeking martyrdom.
Mandela resisted the advice. He was determined to voice his conviction before the court. Bizos offered an alternative, “Add the words ‘if needs be’ before the words ‘I am prepared to die’.” Mandela agreed. He marked the insert in pen.
The relationship developed into a personal one which endured over the years while Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island and continued until Mandela passed away in 2013.
Nelson Mandela says of Bizos in his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: "George, the child of Greek immigrants, was a man who combined a sympathetic nature with an incisive mind."
Bizos played a critical role through the years of Mandela’s incarceration, both professionally and as a family friend. Speaking a couple of years after his release from prison, Mandela said that Bizos had “behaved like a brother” to him while he was in jail. “He looked after my family, after my children, advised my children and he made me feel that although I'm in prison, my affairs are being looked after by a man I know and I trust.” Mandela trusted Bizos not only to represent him in court but later to carry messages from the banned African National Congress (ANC) leaders imprisoned on Robben Island to their colleagues in exile.
He appeared in the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) representing families of people killed during the South African liberation struggle. He represented the families of Steven Bantu Biko and Chris Hani. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) he appeared for, among others, the families of Steven Bantu Biko and the Cradock Four — Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlawuli — to oppose amnesty applications by apartheid agents. He also appeared in numerous inquests into deaths in detention during apartheid, including those of Dr Neil Aggett, Ahmed Timol and Steven Bantu Biko.
In democratic South Africa, Bizos, as part of the Legal Resources Centre, appeared for some of the mine workers’ families at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry into the police killing of 34 mine workers on 16 August 2012.
Bizos is the author of his friendship with Nelson Mandela, Odyssey to Freedom (2009), an autobiography, and No One to Blame?: In Pursuit of Justice in South Africa (1998), in which he gives a personal account of the steady erosion of justice in South Africa during the apartheid years.
In 2004 Bizos represented Morgan Tsvangirai, president of the main opposition party (Movement for Democratic Change - MDC) in Zimbabwe, who was charged with high treason by the Zimbabwean government.
Bizos has been an advocate in Johannesburg for 48 years and since 1990 has been working at the Legal Resources Centre and the Constitutional Litigation Unit, as counsel to 40 lawyers. He has dedicated his working life fighting for basic human rights under apartheid, and since the collapse of apartheid, he has fought to ensure that those rights, guaranteed under the Constitution, are accorded to all South Africans.
Some Achievements and Positions
- 1979 - 1993 - acted as defence counsel in numerous high profile political trials, founding member of the National Council of Lawyers for Human Rights.
- 1982 - 1994 - Senior Counsel at the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg in the Constitutional Unit; member of the Board of Trustees of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwatersrand.
- 1985 - 1993 - Judge of the Court of Appeal in Botswana
- 1994 - Honorary Member of the Athens Bar
- 1990 - 1994 - Member of the ANC's Legal and Constitutional Committee.
- 1994 he was appointed to the Judicial Services Commission to recommend candidates for judicial office and reforms to the judicial system
- 1999 – Doctorate of Law (h.c.) – University of the Witwatersrand 1999 he received the Order for Meritorious Service Class II medal from then- President Nelson Mandela
- 1999 - A member of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers in
- Leader of the team for the Constituent Assembly before the Constitutional Court to certify the country's new Constitution
- 2001 – Received the International Trial Lawyer Prize of the Year from the International Academy of Trial Lawyers.
- 25 October 2004 - received the International Bar Association's (IBA) prestigious Bernard Simons Memorial Award in Auckland, Australia.
- 3 November 2004 - received annual Sydney and Felicia Kentridge Award, from the General Council of the Bar.
- 2008 – Honorary Doctorate in Law from the University of Cape Town.
Bizos was married to Arethe “Rita” Daflos, who passed away in 2017.
George Bizos passed away on 9 September 2020 in Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa. They are survived by their three sons Alexis, Damon and Kimon and seven grandchildren.
- Daily Maverick. (2020). In memory of George Bizos (1928-2020), from Daily Maverick, 10 September 2020, online. Available at https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-09-10-in-memory-of-george-bizos-1928-2020/?utm_
- Greek City Times. Nelson Mandela's lawyer, anti apartheid campaigner George Bizos passes away aged 92 from Greek City Times, 10 September 2020, online. Available at https://greekcitytimes.com/2020/09/10/nelson-mandelas-lawyer-anti-apartheid-campaigner-george-bizos-passes-away-aged-92/. Accessed on 10 September 2020
- City of Johannesburg. (2018)). George Bizos loves Joburgers. Available at https://www.joburg.org.za/play_/Pages/Play%20in%20Joburg/Joburg%20Vibe/links/Why%20I%20love%20Joburg/links/George-Bizos.aspx. Accessed on 10 September 2020 https://www.joburg.org.za/play_/Pages/Play%20in%20Joburg/Joburg%20Vibe/links/Why%20I%20love%20Joburg/links/George-Bizos.aspx
- Adrian Steirn, A. (2018). In Conversation - George Bizos from ICONS South Africa, online. Available at http://21icons.com/george-bizos/. Accessed on 10 September 2020
- Torchia, C. (2020). Mandela’s lawyer, anti-apartheid activist George Bizos dies from AP, 9 September 2020, online. Available at https://apnews.com/bd14860bc56ca6f68f335fd68cb0c030. Accessed on 10 September 2020.
- Nelson Mandela Foundation. (2020). George Bizos – 1927 – 2020. Available at https://www.nelsonmandela.org/content/page/george-bizos online. Accessed on 10 September 2020-09-10
- Bizos, G. (1989). Memoirs of George Bizos from Aluka, online. Available at http://psimg.jstor.org/fsi/img/pdf/t0/10.5555/al.sff.document.gerhart0018_final.pdf. Accessed on 11 September 2020
- From Rivonia to Marikana, Niren Tolsi, Mail & Guardian online, 14 September 2012
- George Bizos – 1927 – 2020, Nelson Mandela Foundation
- Statement from the Bizos Family and the Legal Resources Centre, Nelson Mandela Foundation
- Bernardo, C. (2020) UCT mourns the passing of Advocate George Bizos from University of Cape Town News, online
- Interview: George Bizos, by John Carlin, FrontLine, PBS
- Memoirs of George Bizos, by George Bizos, with T Karis & G M Gerhart, Aluka
- The plight of human rights defenders by Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele, De Rebus, Law Society of South Africa
- Three Men You Can Bet Your Life On, from Forbes Africa, 1 April 2013
- Legal giant, legend, friend, family man: A tribute to George Bizos by Sarah Smit, Paddy Harper & Lester Kiewit, Mail & Guardian online, 10 September 2020