PODCAST: George Bizos – A Matter of Life and Death

Reading Time: 18 minutes

SABC News’ National Radio Current Affairs Editor, Angie Kapelianis, interviewed Advocate George Bizos at the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg on the 28th of May 2007, when his memoir, Odyssey to Freedom, was published.

Listen to the interview below:

Danny Booysen technically edited the audio of the interview.

Transcript of the interview below:

Angie Kapelianis:  “We describe you as a veteran human rights lawyer.  How would you describe yourself?”

George Bizos:  “As a man who’s practiced law for almost 55 years (by 2007).  I hope that I’ve made some little contribution to the freedom of the people of South Africa as a whole, and some small difference in the lives of many people who I defended.”

Angie Kapelianis:  “Who or what has shaped you?”

George Bizos:  “Too many things.  I was born in a village (Vasilitsi in southwestern Greece).  My primary schooling was there.  I had a wonderful teacher – a refugee from Asia Minor, who had a very broad horizon of the world.  And the clouds of war were gathering in the middle and late Thirties.  And we were afraid of being occupied by the Italian fascist government and the German Nazi government.  My father (Antoni Bizos) had been elected mayor of the village in 1934.  But two years later, a dictator (General Ioannis Metaxas) took over in Greece and he (my father) was stripped of his office.  I recited poetry and freedom songs about Greek independence.  As you may know, for 380 years Greece was occupied by the Ottoman Empire.  All these things shaped my life.  The Nazi occupation of Greece in 1941 was a shock for my father and me, a thirteen-year-old at school.  The schools closed.  We witnessed the Stuka (German dive bomber and ground-attack) aeroplanes with their horrible noise and the black cross on the undercarriage of the wings.  We were afraid; lived under Nazi occupation for about six weeks until Allied soldiers came to our place.  My father at considerable risk to himself probably committed one of the acts of defiance of the Nazi occupation by taking New Zealand soldiers in a small boat to go to Crete, without knowing that Crete was busy falling to the Germans with their paratroopers.  Happily, we were picked up by the HMS Kimberley of (Lord Louis) Mountbatten’s flotilla, which was going to Crete to try and help in the evacuation of the Allied troops and the government of Greece on Crete.  They took us to Alexandria (in Egypt).  I went into an orphanage.  My father was in a refugee camp.  The Italians were occupying part of Egypt.  The Middle East Command, thank you to my father, arranged for a number of refugees, and particularly for my father and me, to be put on the second biggest ship in the world at the time, the (SS) Île de France, and we were brought to Durban.  I was disappointed to see how strong, black men were pulling rickshaws – something that made a very bad impression on me because where I was born things were transported by draught animals, not by human beings.  And then I didn’t go to school for two-and-a-half years.  Cecilia Feinstein saw me behind the counter (of a café), working at the age of 15-plus, and she recognised me from a photograph of my father and me published in The Sunday Times.  And she asked whether I was the boy that she saw in the photograph.  I said: ‘Yes.’  And then she took it up with the people that I was working for and said that this was unacceptable.  She was a teacher.  She would come on Monday morning and take me to her school.  And I did my Standard 6 over again and my Standard 7 under her.  And she arranged for me to go to Athlone High, and had arranged with Rita Greenberg – the senior English mistress of that school – to look after me.”

Angie Kapelianis:  “Why did your mom (Anastasia Bizos) stay behind (in Greece)?  Why didn’t she come with you and your dad?”

George Bizos:  “It was a very dangerous trip.  My grandfather, my mother, my grandmother didn’t want me to go.  And I threatened that I was going to swim behind the boat if they didn’t take me along.  We stayed here (in South Africa) on a refugee permit until 1948.  And then the Nationalists came into power whilst I was a first-year student at Wits (University).  And this was a great insult to the student body.  And it was there that you can possibly say that I was radicalised, for lack of a better word.”

Angie Kapelianis:  “Why, when you were at Wits, did you decide to study law?”

George Bizos:  “Because at school I was particularly interested in history.  I was particularly interested by what was happening at the United Nations, about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Atlantic Charter.  My generation was too young to fight but old enough to understand why that war was being fought.  My father wanted me to become a doctor.  I didn’t get in because preference was given to ex-servicemen, not women.  So, much to my father’s disappointment, I didn’t even apply for medicine.  And I told my father that I wasn’t interested in doing medicine; I wanted to do law, particularly influenced by a lecturer called Livingstone.  In Political Theory and Government, we did Plato’s Republic and the first book of Plato’s Republic is on justice.  This was a great debate.  What is meant by justice?  That influenced me.”

Angie Kapelianis:  “You’ve focussed on human rights.  Is it because of your experience in Greece and the war, and the Nazism and fascism?”

George Bizos:  “When you come to the Bar after you’ve studied, you can’t really say what you’re going to specialise in.  Because of my student activism, as soon as I qualified, the first political case I did (in 1954) was for a photographer who photographed a meeting in Sophiatown, Eli Weinberg, who was banned from attending gatherings.  He climbed the roof of a shack.  He took pictures.  I was asked to defend him by Ruth First, who had sent him there to take pictures.  It got publicity.  I was led by Vernon Berrangé, who became my mentor.  I used an expression which he liked: ‘Mr Weinberg was not only absent from the meeting; he was prominently absent from it.’  He said: ‘Hey, this is good stuff!’  And he (Weinberg) was acquitted.”

Angie Kapelianis:  “From what I understand, you did cases for Mandela & Tambo (Attorneys).  Do you recall the first time that you met him (Nelson Mandela), saw him or spoke to him?”

George Bizos:  “Eduardo Mondlane, the Mozambican leader, was a student (at Wits).  There was a protest meeting against the university authorities for not standing up to the security police, and Nelson Mandela spoke.  He was a most impressive man.  He was introduced as one of the leaders of the (ANC) Youth League and thereafter he was my senior in the law faculty.  I wasn’t in the law faculty yet.  I was still a night student.  Fatima Meer’s husband (Ismail) was one of the people that was active, in sort of Gandhian activity.  This is how I came to meet him and we became quite friendly.  Nelson (Mandela) was a smart dresser.  He was walking erect and upright and he didn’t bow and say: ‘as your Worship pleases’, in a sort of subservient manner.  .I got quite a bit of work from Mandela & Tambo all over the country.  In my little Morris Minor, I went from dorp to dorp to do cases for people for comparatively petty offenses, violations of the apartheid laws.”

Angie Kapelianis:  “What was it about him (Nelson Mandela) that impressed you?”

George Bizos:  “He was able to stand on a platform, really create a spellbound atmosphere because of his self-confidence, because of the way in which he was articulate about how ardently he believed in freedom of all the people of South Africa.  Originally, he was a nationalist.  But I think with the Defiance Campaign (1951-1953) and under the influence of Bram Fischer, Dr (Yusuf) Dadoo, when he saw that Indian, coloured and white people were prepared to go to jail, this is the beginning of his attitude that South Africa belongs to all of us.”

Angie Kapelianis:  “Why did you decide to do your memoir (Odyssey to Freedom)?”

George Bizos:  “I actually started my memoir a few years before the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission).  But what was happening in the TRC – as you well know having taken a major part in reporting it – the murderers, abductors, torturers that had denied everything that we accused them of during the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, all of a sudden, for the benefit of amnesty, they would come and say and admit the very things that we accused them of.  And to its shame, justice exonerated them for the death of (Steve) Biko, the death of Ahmed Timol, the death of the Cradock Four (Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlauli) and the others.  And I thought: ‘Hey, newspaper reports can hardly put it in proper context.  What I think I need to do for my profession, to the administration of justice, to the people of South Africa, (is) to write, not a personal memoir, but almost a documentary of what was done, what was said then, what they’re saying now and how they cheated justice to its shame.  And this is why I stopped the biography and I concentrated on that (his other book called No One to Blame?).  It became a little difficult to go back to the autobiography.  And then there were a lot of interruptions.  There was a lot of work in the Legal Resources Centre.  And then I took the (Morgan) Tsvangirai trial in Zimbabwe.  Random House and Stephen Johnson, its head, were very patient.  But I did get calls every three months or so: ‘When are you going to get down to it?’  About a year ago (2006), I sort of said: ‘Enough is enough.  I must get down to it and finish it.’  Many of my friends, who hear me talk, flatter me by telling me that I’m a raconteur – whatever that may mean.  They said: ‘You must do it because it’s important.  Many people, particularly the young ones that I defended arising out of the Soweto uprising said: ‘No, no, Mr Bizos, we want you to tell the story for our children.’  But what the book is about is really what has happened in the trials.  You know, the courtroom is the last forum of the oppressed.  What do you do (for) a man or a few of the women who say: ‘I did contravene your laws, but you had no moral right to try me!’?  And they proceed to speak about their personal experience – what happened to them, what happened to their parents, what happened to their grandparents, how the police behaved after a funeral.  These, I think, are trials which bring to the fore how people suffered, how people were unjustly treated.  The black people in South Africa have known oppression from the cradle to the grave.  And I wanted to write part of that history.”

Angie Kapelianis:  “You’ve chosen Odyssey to Freedom.  Why did you choose that title?”

George Bizos:  “Having left (Greece) in a small boat, having been in turbulent seas, having been picked up by a boat, taking a long time…  And the word ‘odyssey’ has a secondary meaning – and that’s a journey.  And also, you will have noticed I dedicated the book: ‘For those who let me walk with them’.  I have been fortunate that I crossed the path of some great people in South Africa, and without them I would have just been another lawyer.  But they made me what some people think I am.  I’ve been fortunate in having undertaken this journey at the instance of great people – people who made real contributions to South Africa’s history.”

Angie Kapelianis:  “Which was your most difficult or challenging case?”

George Bizos:  “The Rivonia Trial was a very challenging case because it was a matter of life and death.  Nelson Mandela’s heroic (dock) statement brought home to the international community that this (the ANC) was not a terrorist organisation.  This was a struggle for the freedom and the democratic human rights of the people of South Africa.  I think Nelson’s statement from the dock and the most articulate manner in which (Walter) Sisulu spoke about the plight of the black people and Govan Mbeki in a more intellectual and logical fashion persuaded this judge (Quartus de Wet) that these people were somewhat special and even (though) he could not bring himself to see them as equals, not having had any contact with black or African people, or Indian people for that matter, except on the master-and-servant and shopkeeper-and-customer level, he realised that they were people of substance.  And as Alan Paton put it at the end of the trial – he was accused of coming to court by (Percy) Yutar in order to make propaganda against the government and the white people in the country – Alan Paton said: ‘No, I didn’t come for that purpose.  I came because I love my country.  One day you will have to negotiate with the leaders of the black people in order to bring peace to this country.  Put these men to death and you will have no one that will trust you to negotiate with.’  That’s exactly what happened.  So, that was the most difficult.”

Angie Kapelianis:     “Was it also the most memorable?”

George Bizos:  “Yes.  You know, to have to defend your friend on a capital charge is additional pressure.  But the Delmas trial (Mosiuoa Lekota, Popo Molefe, Moss Chikane, Tom Manthata, Gcina Malindi et al), the (Morgan) Tsvangirai trial – they were all trials in which the people’s, if not, lives, their freedom, was at stake.  Primarily, the cases that I have done had to do something with freedom, to bring out discrimination, persecution, inequality, injustice.  I didn’t choose them.  In many respects, they chose me.  Arthur Chaskalson says that there isn’t anyone in the country or indeed in the world that he knows of who has done as many political cases as I have.  I don’t know whether that is true or not.  Perhaps somebody can do a master’s degree on it one day.  But I was flattered that people chose me when they had their back to the wall.  When I joined the Legal Resources Centre in 1992, I thought that political trials are over and I would just carry on making lots of money in commercial cases.  But that wasn’t to be because the Legal Resources Centre had to do a number of inquests right at the beginning like the (Matthew) Goniwe inquest, the Shell House inquest.  But the (Morgan) Tsvangirai case was another.  Here I thought I would never do another treason trial.  We were on holiday in Greece, on top of a hill, by the sea, (and) we got a three-page letter from the attorney and the two advocates that had been briefed for (Morgan) Tsvangirai.  And they said they came to the conclusion I was the most suited because of my experience to do the case.  I was there with my wife (Arethe “Rita” Bizos) and I showed her the letter.  I thought that she would have said: ‘Enough is enough.’  But she never said that in her life.  And she said: ‘Well, there’s a telephone number, isn’t there?  You better phone them back and tell them you’ll take it.  And they told me that it would last six weeks.  It lasted almost a year!  Johann Kriegler says that my defending Tsvangirai really helped to get him acquitted because no judge could really convict him after everything that we brought out.  It was a frame-up and we exposed it for what it was.”

Angie Kapelianis:  “Did you get any flak from the ANC or South African government for taking on that case?”

George Bizos:  “On the contrary, they took a vicarious pleasure of my presence there.  And certainly, no one highly placed – from the president down – ever suggested that I should not have done it.  Cyril Ramaphosa came to me after the unbanning of the ANC.  I was a member of the ANC Constitutional and Legal Committee.  And Cyril said: ‘George, the National Executive has confirmed your membership of the Committee.’  I said: ‘Well, thank you, Cyril.  Does this mean that I have to get a card?’  And he said: ‘No, no, no, there are some people who don’t need a card.’  And I said: ‘Well, what am I supposed to do?’  He said: ‘George, you’ve got to do everything, but I’ll try and get you an exemption from toyi-toying!’”

Angie Kapelianis:  “Having witnessed the evolution of the ANC from the middle of the last century, has it met your expectations in government?”

George Bizos:  “There is no one, in my opinion, that can do better.  I’m critical of some of their decisions.  I sometimes have to write to newspapers to remind our people, who call me a comrade, where we come from, particularly in relation to the judiciary and in relation to fundamental human rights and the introduction of terrorism legislation.  There are many people in government who unfortunately are not living up to the standards, particularly in the second and third tier, where people are hungry for power and hungry for money and are not always as honest as my friends, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Duma Nokwe would have expected them to be.  But that is government and the temptations of committing acts of corruption for personal gain is there, particularly for people who were poor, and they see others doing it, and why not me?  And it’s an unfortunate thing about which I’m not particularly pleased.  I am upset by the poverty that there is.  I’m upset about the lack of quality education that there is.  I am upset by the great chasm between the very rich and the very poor.  I believe that we are slowly moving along the road of establishing an egalitarian society, in which there is greater equality, greater justice.  Absolute equality and absolute justice are not of this world.  The only thing that we can do is really try our best to mitigate what is not happening.  And I find comfort in quoting the great democrat, Pericles, in ancient Athens – that there is no shame in admitting poverty.  The real shame is in not taking positive steps to put an end to it.  And I think that despite the fact that a lot of people say that nothing has changed, that’s not correct.  You go to the universities, you go to the banking halls, you go to the airways, the jobs that people do in factories without job reservation; count the number of people that were at school before and the number of people at school now.  True, that some of it is not good education, but it can only improve.  And this is why I’m optimistic about our future.  I’m hoping (that) what I have said in the book (Odyssey to Freedom) will bring home to the young people of where we come from.”

Angie Kapelianis:  “Looking back at your life, do you have any regrets?”

George Bizos:  “I didn’t do all the cases as well as I could have.  I lost some.  It’s inevitable for someone who’s honest with himself to say that I could have done better.  But I have never apologised for anything that I did in my professional life.”

Angie Kapelianis:  “Did you as a Greek in South Africa experience racism?”

George Bizos:  “The Afrikaner nationalists regarded themselves as the owners of South Africa; the Anglo-Saxons as welcomed guests; the southern ‘Mediterraneans’, as Jimmy Kruger said in relation to the Greeks, that they were here ‘on sufferance’.  I got a message from John Vorster when he was prime minister that my rope was getting short.  But he, on the other hand, is the one who relented and actually said that I could have a passport when he was approached by one of the judges.”

Angie Kapelianis:  “But he was probably hoping that you wouldn’t come back?”

George Bizos:  “Ja, well, if he hoped that, he was wrong.  But I have never complained of being ill-treated mainly because, you know, the sort of jibe about the Greeks.  I had a lot of jibes during the period of the dictatorship in Greece.  They (people in South Africa) said: ‘You talk about democracy and you want to teach us about democracy, look at your mother country, I mean, they’ve got dictators.’  And that was hurtful.  But all these things were minor compared to the indignity that black people had to suffer and I couldn’t complain about that.  In fact, the country has been good to me both professionally and personally.  I’ve got support from all sections of the community – black and white and different ethnicities.  I never felt that I was discriminated in relation to the work that I was offered.  It’s true that I wasn’t a fashionable lawyer for the mining houses and the big insurance companies, but there’s life without them.”

On the occasion of the launch of his book, Kapelianis captured some moments on camera.

Gallery below: