George Bizos SC, human rights icon, devoted husband and father, dedicated friend and avid gardener, has peacefully passed away. He is survived by three sons and seven grandchildren. South Africa has lost a giant figure in our history, a man who did much to help establish a true compass for our country, but he has handed the baton to the next generations. We will deeply mourn his loss and extend our condolences to his family.
In 1941, at the age of 13, George Bizos left Greece on a small boat with his father and a few other men to avoid the approaching Nazi troops. This escape did not go as planned and George ended up as a refugee working in a corner café in Johannesburg. Were it not for a vigilant teacher, who insisted that George enrol in school, he may never have learnt English or studied law. For many years Bizos was denied the South African citizenship to which he was entitled, which placed his wife and three sons, in a precarious and vulnerable position. His own experience of being a refugee must have informed his representation of refugees during the xenophobic attacks of 2008.
His human rights practice, which spanned 60 years, serves as a road map for how law was used as an instrument for challenging the apartheid legal framework and as an instrument for implementing South Africa's first democratic Constitution and Bill of Rights. One day at the Marikana Commission when there was some confusion about legal representation and mandate, Bizos said that he represented the Constitution. He represented, among others, impoverished women challenging pass laws, anti-apartheid activists facing the death penalty, and the families of political activists who had died at the hands of the Security Police. Some of his most well-known clients were former President Nelson Mandela, the other 1964 treason trialists and the late Winnie Mandela. The adoption of the 1996 Constitution was one of the many occasions that filled Bizos's eyes with tears, this time with tears of joy. He was also part of the legal team that had the death penalty declared unconstitutional. More recently, he testified in the reopened Ahmed Timol inquest, a long-running matter run by our pro bono team.
In 1999, then president Mandela awarded George Bizos the Order for Meritorious Service Class 2, while in 2001 he received the International Trial Lawyer Prize of the Year from the International Academy of Trial Lawyers.
As he makes his final journey, it is apt to quote a few lines from one of his favourite poems, 'Ithaca' by C P Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard):
As you set out for Ithaca
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high…
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave you the marvellous journey.
George Bizos SC with Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng at the launch of Webber Wentzel's 90 Rivonia office in 2016.