George Bizos: The feisty fighter who helped save the neck of a legend


If you went to George Bizos’s office in Johannesburg this morning you would have found him doing what he has been doing for more than 60 years – fighting for the human rights of others.

Eighty-seven-year-old 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 were facing 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.

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Bizos was one of the junior members of a heavy weight defence team led by experienced human rights advocates Braam Fischer, Joel 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, in the endless hours in the bowels of the Palace of Justice as the accused waited for hours to ascend the dark staircase to the dock.

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 in Rivonia, in Johannesburg, where most of the Rivonia trialists were arrested in a police raid, that he had persuaded Mandela to insert “if needs be” into the speech. It took some persuasion for the lawyerly 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 hear that the Rivonia trialists were not going to hang long before the verdict in Pretoria.

The British government had 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. How different history could have been if it were not for a dose of timely diplomatic pressure.