Africa

George Bizos, anti-apartheid icon who defended Mandela, dies aged 92

Issued on:

George Bizos, an anti-apartheid icon and renowned human rights lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela on treason charges for which he escaped the death penalty, died on Wednesday aged 92.

Advertising Read more

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the rights lawyer's passing during an online media briefing.

"This is very sad for our country," he said.

Bizos died of natural causes at his Johannesburg, his family said in a statement.

The celebrated lawyer represented Mandela during the Rivonia Trial which saw Mandela and seven others sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 on charges of seeking to overthrow the racist apartheid government.

Many had expected the death penalty.

Ramaphosa described Bizos as one of the lawyers who "contributed immensely to the attainment of our democracy".

"He had an incisive legal mind and was one of the architects of our constitution," the president said.

The news of the passing of #GeorgeBizos is very sad for us as a country. An incisive legal mind and architect of our Constitution, he contributed immensely to our democracy. We extend our deepest condolences to his family and dip our heads in his honour. pic.twitter.com/yUCgNuvKDX

— Cyril Ramaphosa 🇿🇦 #StaySafe (@CyrilRamaphosa) September 9, 2020

Bizos arrived in South Africa as a 13-year-old war refugee from Greece and became one of its most respected lawyers.

In a long career dedicated to defending democratic values and human rights, the soft-spoken Bizos represented a series of activists against the white minority regime and later helped to finalise the constitution of post-apartheid South Africa.

A beloved national figure, he continued working into his late 80s. One of his last major trials secured government payouts in 2014 for families of 34 miners shot dead by police at Marikana northwest of Johannesburg two years earlier.

Defending Mandela

Bizos was in his mid-thirties when he was chosen in 1963 to join a team of advocates that represented Mandela and other leading activists in one of the most important political trials in the history of South Africa.

Although a junior member of the defence team, Bizos was credited with the tactic of proposing that Mandela deliver a statement from the dock to present the group's cause, rather than submit him to cross-examination.

The speech was electrifying, notably Mandela's often-cited lines on his hope for democracy: "It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Bizos would say later that he advised Mandela to avoid challenging the court over the possibility of a death sentence by adding the tempering words "if needs be".

In his autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom" (1994), Mandela describes the advocate as a lifelong friend and "a man who combined a sympathetic nature with an incisive mind".

Bizos continued to represent Mandela throughout his 27-year jail term and also acted for his then wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, on more than 20 occasions.

Young lawyers

Bizos and Mandela met as law students at a Johannesburg university in the 1950s and later worked together.

Admitted to the Johannesburg Bar in 1954, Bizos took on cases that challenged the apartheid system, attracting the ire of the government but establishing the track record that led to his joining the Rivonia Trial team.

Among his other high-profile work, Bizos defended the family of BlacRead More – Source