George Bizos was SA’s contemporary hero: Dennis Davis
By Judge Dennis Davis
Why do newspapers publish obituaries of well-known people who recently died? Doubtless it is to record a life of prominence and, on occasion, to celebrate a life which has contributed to the greater good.
No matter the merit of the subject, the obituary should endeavour to tease out lessons which may be drawn for those who survive.
George Bizos’s long life is a quintessential cause for celebration of a life well lived, of achievement, dedication, integrity and the utmost care for fellow human beings.
But more than that, Bizos is a luminous contemporary example of what a new South Africa could become: a society where a person can transcend the boundaries of identity to embrace all of humanity, where the character of the person is far more important than their appearance and where, as in this case, a boy born in Greece can arrive in the racist South Africa of the 1940s and sustain an unrivalled commitment to the antithesis of the country into which he arrived and make a distinctive contribution to a non-racial democracy.
Within 20 years of his arrival, Bizos would be a part of the legal team that defended the Rivonia trialists.
As was typical of Bizos throughout his career, he cared not only for his clients in court but was fastidious about their welfare. In his book, Odyssey to Freedom, he describes how he brought home-grown salad, fruit, cheese and bread to the Rivonia trialists – a practice he continued with many political accused over the years.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, he defended Winnie Mandela on numerous occasions as she was continually subjected to consistent egregious harassment from the state. As he notes in his book, finally in 1973 the State did obtain a conviction with a term of imprisonment but even then Bizos managed to persuade the Appellate Division to reduce it to six months.
A similar example of Bizos’s dedication to justice was the defence of Kenneth Tiza Dlamini who had been charged with the murder of Dr Melville Edelstein. The police had extracted a confession and when Errol Price, then a young junior allocated to defend Dlamini, approached senior counsel for assistance, Bizos immediately responded to lead the defence. By way of painstaking investigative work and sustained and skilled cross-examination, Dlamini was acquitted, a remarkable result in front of the pro-executive Judge Frikkie Eloff.
Bizos also defended the Nusas accused and acted as junior to Sydney Kentridge, the greatest forensic advocate of the modern era, in the inquest concerning the murder of Steve Biko. While Kentridge and Bizos were technically unsuccessful, given the disgrace of a magistrate, the case they argued exposed to the world the barbarity of the security police in particular and the government in general.
But by far the most important case of the period was what Bizos, in his book, called the longest trial – the Delmas treason trial. It went on for 4 years, in which 420 days were spent in court. It involved leaders of the United Democratic Front.
Bizos was heroic in his doggedness, stamina and sheer forensic determination to defend his clients that he caused the trial judge, Judge Kees van Dijkhorst, endless frustration, so much so that the judge possessed of a formidable legal mind, conceded sufficient legal own goals, in particular the sacking of an independent assessor.
This ensured that the Appellate Division had little alternative but to uphold the appeal and acquit.
The dawn of democracy did not cause Bizos to reduce his commitment to the cause of justice. He became part of the Legal Resources Centre, lending his vast experience to the critical legal organisation. He was on the first complement of the Judicial Service Commission where he sought to promote a transformation of the judiciary, so that it would be capable of introducing the transformative jurisprudence necessary for the new democracy.
His death heralds the loss of a man whose moral integrity, humanity and commitment to those in need of justice should, if we can shrug off the capture of amnesia which fuels so much of the pernicious discourse that dominates much of the public space, serve as a beacon of hope for the attainment of a non-racial democracy that works for 60 million people.
*Judge Davis is Judge President of the Competition Appeal Court and co-author with Michelle le Roux of Lawfare: Judging of Politics in South Africa