The gentle lion of the courts of justice who fought for the rights of his fellow man – almost to his last breath – is gone.
Human rights lawyer George Bizos died at his Johannesburg home on the sun drenched afternoon of September 9 of natural causes, according to his family.
The last time I saw him was seven years ago at a reunion of the Rivonia Trial lawyers: Bizos; Joel Joffe and Denis Kuny at Liliesleaf, in Rivonia, where the arrest of the leaders of the underground lent the famous trial its name.
On that day the great man asked if I could help him up a flight of stairs. He lent gently on me and with a huff there and a puff here and there we made it to the top. I felt honoured.
Bizos has spent a lifetime fighting the good fight in court and helped save the life of South Africa’s first black president at South Africa’s trial of the century in 1964.
Mandela and his comrades faced the death penalty on charges of sabotage in the so called Rivonia Trial at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria. To make matters even more difficult for the defence team was the fact that the accused refused to deny the charges relating to a string of attacks on government property from electricity pylons to post boxes. They argued that the apartheid state should have been in the dock instead.
Bizos was one of the junior members of a heavy weight defence team led by experienced human rights advocates Braam Fischer, Joffe and Arthur Chaskelson.
Survivors of the trial remember Bizos as a bright young man who was always quick with the sandwiches and a quip, as well as sound legal counsel. He was a shining young light in the endless hours in the bowels of the Palace of Justice as the accused waited to ascend the steep, dark, staircase to the dock each day.
It was Bizos who told me, in 2013, how he altered the world famous speech from the dock by Mandela in which he spoke for his comrades. Mandela spoke of the ideal of a free and multi-racial South Africa which he hoped to live to see.
“But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die,” concluded Mandela to a stunned court.
“There was a deafening silence at the end of the speech, you could have heard a pin drop,” Chaskelson told me more than half a century later.
Bizos told me at Liliesleaf on a warm summer’s evening , that he had persuaded Mandela to insert “if needs be” into the speech. It took some persuasion for the legally trained pen of Mandela to make a change, but after a burst of Bizos browbeating, he agreed.
“I felt the speech was too strong as it was. It was an invitation to the judge to hang everyone and make them martyrs, so I recommended we put in the words ‘If needs be’” says Bizos.
Joffe, a former chairman of Oxfam made Lord Joffe by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, remembered Mandela’s reaction to the change.
“I read my speech and there seems to be an error, he said, it is my sentence and I want it back!” Joffe chuckled.
Bizos also claimed he was the first to learn that the Rivonia trialists were not going to hang long before the verdict in Pretoria.
The British government had been putting pressure on the South African authorities not to hang Mandela and his comrades. It feared that they would be made martyrs and fuel unrest that could threaten British investments in South Africa.
Bizos recalled a social gathering at the embassy where the British ambassador had more than a few drinks.
“As I walked out he put his arm around me and said: ‘Don’t worry George, they are not going to hang and Rusty Bernstein will be acquitted,” Bizos said.
So it was, to the letter, weeks later in court. Even though the accused were upbeat and smiling on their way to prison following the verdict holding up three fingers to Bizos through the window of the police van.
“Three years George and we will be out!” they shouted to their lawyer.
But it was not to be so, life was to mean life for the Rivonia trialists who spent nearly 30 years behind bars.
All of the Rivonia trialists – who have now passed on – emerged from prison to see a free South Africa. How different history could have been if it were not for a dose of timely diplomatic pressure and a canny counsel by the name of Bizos.