George Bizos opens his heart to me in his office in the Legal Resources Centre, overlooking Gandhi Square in downtown Johannesburg.

On a hot afternoon this week, a few days after his 75th birthday, we travel the vast expanse of the odyssey made by this Greek South African for whom identity is "a state of mind".

He says he is equally attached to his two homes.

"The wise one does not ask his child which parent he prefers," he says - and quotes from the poem Ithaca by Constantine Cavafy.

Ithaca, Bizos reminds me, was Odysseus's home.

Bizos's is a big heart, which does not mean that the good advocate is a pussycat.

Those opposed to democracy and truth know this well.

Bizos's role in the Hefer Commission is controversial.

The commission was set up to investigate allegations that Bulelani Ngcuka, National Director of Public Prosecutions, had been investigated for being an apartheid spy and that he abused his position as the country's chief prosecutor. Bizos's acceptance of a brief from the security services has aroused criticism from the South African History Archives and in some legal quarters.

Bizos says he is unapologetic. "The security services of the apartheid regime I fought so hard against are not the security forces that I now represent."

Bizos says he was persuaded by Intelligence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu that the events that led to the Hefer Commission "would be highly prejudicial to the security apparatus of the state".

He says his decision to represent the security forces "is proof of the real change that has occurred in the country".

He can hardly be accused of inconsistency in his career.

He was a junior member of the ANC defence team in the Rivonia trial in 1963-1964, where Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and five others faced the death penalty.

He has acted as counsel in numerous political trials, including that of Bram Fischer, and at the inquests of Steve Biko, Ahmed Timol and Neil Agget.

He defended Winnie Madikizela-Mandela on more than 20 occasions between 1958 and 1992.

And his campaign for the abolition of the death penalty, both locally and internationally, is legendary.

The allegations against Ngcuka were made by former transport minister Mac Maharaj and former head of the ANC's intelligence, Mo Shaik.

Bizos laughs off a question about prior knowledge of the outcome of the commission with characteristic humour and irony: "I do not ask unnecessary questions of my clients. I would never ask if they have information about Ngcuka, whom I know.

"I defended Mac Maharaj, who blames me for the fact that he spent 14 years in prison."

Bizos was criticized for invoking the 1982 Protection of Information Act, instead of the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2001, which does not recognise the fact of classification as a legitimate reason for refusing access.

"Specific provisions in the 1982 Act prohibit the public from any information which was classified and given in confidence and that no former agent is allowed to divulge without authority of the director of the service concerned," he says.

The services were not obliged to disclose information because the president ordered a commission. This is "not a legal argument", says Bizos. "Not even the president can abrogate the rule of law, set the provision of statutes aside or amend the law of privilege."

For Bizos, the rule of law is the absolute ruler and in March 2001 he spoke out about its absence in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe, who refused to accept that the Zimbabwe courts could rule on the legality of his land-grab programme did not distinguish between the rule of law and the rule by law, Bizos said.

And Bizos was one of the delegation of the International Bar Association that was "not reassured of President Robert Mugabe's commitment to the law".

Bizos's research, which he will readily attribute to his team, is always extensive.

Advocate Danny Berger SC, who was Bizos's junior in an amnesty hearing at the Truth and Reconciliaton Commission and one of his juniors in the Shell House inquests and the Shell House amnesty hearings, describes Bizos as a wonderful, passionate human being, a brilliant strategist, who "listens, then rules".

"It is not easy to be his junior because of his thoroughness," says Berger.

This scholarly approach has earned Bizos the Order of the Phoenix, a presidential award for his contribution to Hellenism abroad, and his teaching of Greek.

He was a co-founder 30 years ago of Saheti, the South African Hellenic educational and tutorial institute in Johannesburg. The school recently named its hall after Bizos.

Despite the fact that he received his secondary and tertiary qualifications in English - he graduated from Wits - he still thinks in his mother tongue in matters relating to the agricultural implements he was familiar with as a child.

There is no need to be reminded that the origin of the word democracy is Greek but for Bizos democracy is of the essence, and he attributes his contribution to his happy meeting with the Nobel prizewinners Chief Albert Luthuli, Nadine Gordimer, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mandela.

Bizos's recent birthday celebrations brought a rehearsal of his many achievements, including the the Meritorious Service Class 11 medal award received from Mandela in 1999; and in 2001 he was voted the International Trial Lawyer of the Year.

The praise is overblown, he protests.

Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson said one need never fear a lull in the dinner conversation when Bizos is around.

To illustrate the fact that he has learned about democracy from South Africans as well as from the ancients, Bizos tells me a typical Bizos story.

A visit to two young men in Pretoria jail who had spent almost a year in solitary confinement was interrupted by the mother of one of the boys.

"The young man came back with two oranges.

"He slowly peeled one of them, and carefully divided it into three portions and offered me the first.

"I said we had a bag of oranges at home, they could share it between the two of them.

"He would not have it.

"There were three of us there and the three had to eat the orange."

Between the tears that threaten to flow often during our interview, comes the laughter.

At the start of our interview, Bizos has declared that there is no dirt on him, that he is "as pure as the West Virginian skies" and that he is "such a good fellow" that he cannot even be suspected of committing adultery.

"Is this true?"

"I said so."

A sound biblical claim from a proud husband - he married Arethe Daflos in 1954, and he is the father of three sons and grandfather of four.

Christened in the Greek Orthodox church, Bizos responds to the liturgy and he thinks the trial of Jesus Christ was "the greatest political trial of all".

However, recently, after praising the gods for rainfall, he was ticked off by a bishop for advocating polytheism.

But he says he is governed "by what I would like to call humanity. By asking myself what is right and what is wrong and deciding on an ad hoc basis without analysing precisely whence the answer comes".

As the harshness of the afternoon light diminishes, emotion rises an falls.

It reaches a pitch when Bizos describes the rescue by rope ladder from the small sailing boat in which he escaped with his father, Antonios Bizos, from the village of Vassilitsi, south of Koroni on the Messinian peninsula when he was 13. Antonios had been the village mayor.

His mother, Anastasia and his three siblings joined them later, in South Africa.

Bizos was to wait 32 years before he was granted a passport by the South African government.

His role of padre and vegetable gardener - the latter is included in his CV - has been woven into the country's lore, along with the seafood delicacies he was served when he visited Mandela, his client on Robben Island, while Mandela was sent to his cell.

There he promised Mandela that he would one day take him to the vast valley of olive trees which was his grandfather's dowry.

In September last year they travelled as far as Athens, where they stayed in a city hotel. "I opened the curtains in Nelson's room and said 'Nelson, come and look', and there was the Acropolis over the hill. He remained silent for over a minute, then he said, 'George are you sure I have not been here before?' "

Unlike Mandela, Bizos has not experienced the catharsis of forgiveness.

In No One to Blame? In Pursuit of Justice in South Africa,(1998) he writes of several unresolved murder cases of detainees, including Steve Biko, Ahmed Timol, Neil Agget.

"I am greatly troubled about the high profile people who avoided telling the truth to the truth commission, or publicly. The truth commission was a structure to grant amnesty in acknowledgement of the truth at a price - it was a necessary compromise, but it is not justice.

"But how much more injustice would there have been to how many more innocent people on either side of the divide if there had not been a settlement?"

It is not by accident that Bizos is the senior counsel at the constitutional litigation unit at the Legal Resources Centre, an independent, non-profit, public law centre.

Finally, I ask him with which Greek hero he identifies.

His answer is quick:

"Nikos Dimou, the modern Greek philosopher says when a Greek looks at himself in a mirror he sees Alexander the Great, Socrates, Theodoros Kolokotronis, (hero of the 1821 Greek war of Independence), or at very least Aristotle, never what he really is: Karagiozi." - Karagiozi is a fool in shadow puppet theatre, the Greek equivalent of a South African Van der Merwe.

"What does the mirror reveal?"

"You answer that question."