Cape Town - In just a week, South Africa has lost two human rights and anti-apartheid icons - this time Rivonia trial defence lawyer George Bizos.
The 92-year-old died of natural causes, attended to by family at home on Wednesday, according to a joint statement by the Bizos family, the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), and the George Bizos Saheti Scholarship and Bursary Fund.
Bizos played an instrumental role in the negotiations for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, and with Arthur Chaskalson and others assisted in the drafting of the democratic Constitution, which he then defended vigorously.
“George was a lifelong campaigner against the death penalty and led the team that successfully acted for the government, arguing that the death penalty was unconstitutional,” the organisations said.
His death comes days after political activist, author and former Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Achmat Dangor died, and less than a month after the death of Mandela’s doctor of almost 10 years, Vejay Ramlakan.
“We celebrate the life of George, lived so well, and with boundless energy, optimism and selflessness. He served so many in the cause of justice,” the three organisations said.
“The LRC salutes George, who made an enormous contribution to the ongoing work of the centre.
“From its inception in 1978 he assisted in the background while pursuing his illustrious career, then joined the LRC in 1991, using our centre as a base in key litigation, including leading the team for the government in passing the Constitution in 1996, representing families of apartheid atrocities at the TRC, leading the LRC team at the Marikana Commission, seeking justice for the Timol and other families of people murdered in detention, and of course many other lesser-known cases, always seeking justice for victims of injustice,” the statement read.
Bizos played an enormous role in mentoring many in the legal profession inside and outside the LRC, some of whom have progressed to very senior positions in the profession and the judiciary.
Outside of the LRC, Bizos had a well-established practice as an advocate from 1954, mostly defending opponents of apartheid, and held many other appointments, including serving on the Judicial Services Commission from 1994 to 2009, as an acting judge in the High Court of South Africa, and as a judge on the Appeal Court in Botswana.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation described Bizos’s death as a hard blow for the organisation.
“We got to know him first as a close friend of Nelson Mandela and over more than 20 years came to regard him as a friend and trusted adviser to the organisation.
“Another giant of South African history and of global struggles for justice has fallen. Our thoughts are with his family, comrades and associates at this difficult time,” said the foundation.
Its chief executive, Sello Hatang said: “Ntate Bizos was always available to support our events and to lend an ear to our challenges. He became like a well-loved uncle to us. We were in awe of him, yet he always engaged us with humility, affection and respect.”
The friendship between Bizos and Mandela spanned more than seven decades.
Whenever he was asked to talk about Bizos, Mandela turned to words of gratitude. He once said: “I don’t think words can sufficiently express our indebtedness to men and women like George Bizos.”
And in the 1963-4 Rivonia Trial, Bizos was a member of the defence team. “He was really devoted to the cause,” Mandela said of Bizos. “When he appeared for us, he did not do so as a man who is appearing for strangers, he did so as his contribution to a great cause to which we were all committed.”
Hatang said: “At a moment like this, we remember Madiba and a whole generation of South Africans who endured much and achieved more. We owe it to them to keep walking that long walk to freedom.”
Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation Trust manager Debbie Budlender said although Bizos, along with others in this generation of freedom fighters, including Goldberg, was of a good age, it was still surreal that he had died.
“He was an institution. As one of the lawyers at the Rivonia Trial, and he did so much more, he continued this good work until recently,” Budlender said.
“What struck one was that he cared. Someone who was prepared to put his all into things, with his full heart.”
Funeral arrangements will be announced on: www.georgebizos.com