Human rights lawyer George Bizos. File Picture.
Human rights lawyer George Bizos. File Picture.

OPINION: George Bizos, one of the great legal minds of our times

By Time of article published Sep 11, 2020

Share this article:

By Yasmin Sooka

Struggle stalwarts Nyameka Goniwe and advocate George Bizos died within a week of each other, lives indelibly linked by their common struggle for justice and accountability.

Nyameka Goniwe, herself a social justice activist in Cradock, and George Bizos, one of the great legal minds of our times, both passed on before they could see the achievement of truth and justice in their lifetimes.

George was instrumental, in 1990, in lodging an application with the Amnesty committee of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to reopen the amnesty application of Cradock 4 killers Nic van Rensburg, Herman du Plessis, Sakkie van Zyl, Eric Taylor, Gerhardus Lotz, Harold Snyman and former Vlakplaas head Eugene de Kock on the basis of new information that he had obtained.

Their initial amnesty applications were based on the spurious grounds that they were trying to quell unrest in the Eastern Cape by killing the former UDF leaders known as the Cradock 4 – Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlauli, in 1985. Their stabbed and burnt bodies were later found in the dunes on a vacant stretch of coast.

George’s intervention before the amnesty committee was based on new evidence that had emerged, which included State Security Council minutes revealing that the orders to kill the Cradock 4 had emanated from the highest levels of the State Security Council and implicated the politicians in state-sponsored terrorism involving death squads and not vigilantes, as had been previously claimed.

George’s intervention was successful and critical to the amnesty applicants not being granted amnesty for these killings. The Cradock 4 case is one that we regard as being part of the “unfinished business” of the Truth Commission, where in support of the families we are pursuing an indictment of those perpetrators who remain alive, as well as the politicians who had command responsibility.

In the last two weeks we have lost three formidable human rights defenders, Nyameka Goniwe, Ahmed Dangor and George Bizos. All opposed the criminality of the apartheid state and its state-sponsored terrorism, which included setting up death squads to take out opponents of the state.

George was absolutely unequivocal about the role of death squads in assassinating opponents of the state and confronted Craig Williamson when he appeared before the amnesty committee, that he had deliberately planned the bomb attack against the Schoons because their suspicions of him had led to the Schoons’ instituting an investigation into him, which led to his unmasking as a police spy.

According to the amnesty application of former security policeman Gerrie Raven, who has admitted making the letter bomb, Williamson had viciously said the Schoons had used their daughter as a bomb disposal system by allowing her to play with parcels that were delivered before they were opened.

George noted that Craig had said “it serves them right” when he heard that the Schoon’s daughter Katryn, 6, was killed in the blast, along with her mother, Jeannette. Williamson of course denied that he had said that.

George came back with a stunning rebuttal and said: “But you congratulated Raven after receiving news of the blast.”

In a powerful rebuke to Craig Williamson, George said: “But the device killed a child. Any person with a drop of humanity would have said ‘woe to us, we have killed a child’, or anybody with any human decency.”

George was fully committed and supportive of the notion of a truth commission as he understood the evidentiary difficulties we would experience if we pursued trials straight away.

However, he was adamant that the voices of victims of apartheid crimes needed to be heard. He was committed to ensuring that the amnesty process was not only based on full disclosure by perpetrators, but that victims should have the right to oppose the amnesty applications. He was also resolute in his view that victims and their lawyers be allowed to cross-examine the perpetrators – and these arguments found their way into the TRC’s legislation.

George’s legal skills and knowledge were on full display at the Truth Commission hearings. His penetrative and robust cross-examination of many of the amnesty applicants exposed their lies and cover-ups.

George was also extremely generous with his time and readily agreed to speak to victims in other countries. He participated in a workshop with family members of the disappeared in Sri Lanka and told them that even though justice had been delayed, it would be realised one day.

George believed strongly that the apartheid state was a criminal state that had established death squads to assassinate activists who opposed apartheid. He assisted their families in their pursuit of justice. It was not enough for him that mainly the foot soldiers came before the TRC to testify. He believed that the rule of law would only be restored if apartheid-era politicians were also held accountable.

We have lost a great soul and legal giant in South Africa.

Hamba Kahle Uncle George.

Sooka is a Human Rights Lawyer and the former Truth Commissioner and chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights for South Sudan (a full version of this article can be found on

The Star

Share this article: