On my visit to post apartheid South Africa in 1995 which came one year after the first democratic elections that swept the African National Congress into power, I first heard the name George Bizos.
“I was inspired by the Hellenic ideals of democracy and the majority of people in South Africa were treated appallingly. University radicalised me, but I was very affected by the injustices I saw everywhere from very early on.” – George Bizos lawyer for Nelson Mandela
It was Gavin Hartford, an organiser with the South African Metalworkers Union who told me about him. As part of the Australian delegation, we were chaperoned to various events and Gavin noticed that there was something different about me compared to the other Australians.
“Well my background is Greek,” I explained.
“Ah, like George Bizos,” he said.
“Who?” I queried.
Gavin looked at me askance. ‘Surely you know George Bizos’, was the expression on his face, because while he may not be well known to many Australians, there’s hardly anyone on any side of the political divide in South Africa who hasn’t heard of him.
So I did my research and discovered an incredible story of the life of a fighter for human rights, a life interwoven into the fabric of modern South African history and the struggle against apartheid.
George, a native of Vasilitsi (near Kalamata) landed in South Africa with his father as a refugee after escaping Nazi occupied Greece in a small boat in their efforts to help New Zealand soldiers.
He spoke no English, or Afrikaans and as a teenager worked in a Greek cafe until a teacher took him under her wing and helped him learn English.
He eventually finished high school and enrolled at Wits University where he met and befriended Nelson Mandela and other black students who would become future leaders of the anti apartheid movement.
“I was inspired by those students,” he explains during our interview. “But at the same time the discrimination they suffered was offensive.”
The university admitted a small number of students, but they had inferior status. They were subject to curfews, couldn’t participate in clubs and sporting events and suffered restrictions that did not apply to the whites.
Was it his experiences as a member of an ethnic minority that spurred his passion for the struggle of equality, I ask him.
“Not really. I was inspired by the Hellenic ideals of democracy and the majority of people in South Africa were treated appallingly. University radicalised me, but I was very affected by the injustices I saw everywhere from very early on.”
Bizos became famous in South Africa early in his legal career defending leading black activists, but also ordinary blacks who were harassed and subject to harsh treatment by the authorities on a daily basis.
In 1964, he defended Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki in the Rivonia trial. Bizos is credited with helping Mandela avoid the death penalty, and instead receiving a life sentence which he served on Robben Island for 26 years before his release in 1990.
I wonder how he kept going during those dark times during the apartheid regime when the laws were so wrong and unjust.
“The laws were jurisprudentially unjust,” he agrees. “But there was a little space in which lawyers could ameliorate the hardships suffered by the black people.
“But what kept me going was the optimism of the people I represented in political trials. Irrespective of their treatment which was very harsh, they believed that things would change, they were hopeful that justice would prevail.
“I, too, went into that optimism.”
His many years as a legal advocate for most leading liberation figures in South Africa, including his role in the four year Delmas Treason Trial in the 1980s which was the prosecution of 22 anti apartheid activists, did not go unnoticed by the government.
“Of course, lawyers like me were punished and isolated. I was not given a passport and was not granted citizenship as a result of my work. As part of the liberation movement, we were branded a gang of criminals by the government.”
Mr Bizos believes it’s important to ‘know thyself’ and his pride in his Hellenic heritage has encouraged him into the area of human rights, both in South Africa and internationally.
Such was his belief in the Hellenic ideals that he led the organisation within the Greek community to establish a school, which opened in 1974.
“Despite my political views, which were known to all and sundry, the Greek community trusted me and I was made chair. We raised money to the build the school and Saheti, as it’s known, enrolled students of all ethnicities.
“We actually broke the law because we admitted black children.”
Indeed among the alumni of Saheti are the children of Chris Hani. Assassinated in 1993, Chris Hani was the leader of the South African Communist party and head of the ANC militant wing, MK.
“Chris Hani was a classics scholar and he wanted his children to receive a classical education.”
Bizos cites Saheti as ‘one of the joys of my life.’
“We have 26 ethnicities in the school and last year the top scholar was an Afrikaan – who excelled in Greek.”
This may not seem a big deal to many of us, living as we do in a culturally diverse country, but for South Africa – where for nearly fifty years people were classified and divided according to whites, blacks, coloureds, terms that defined their life in every way – it’s a major achievement.
“We are taking small and big steps towards creating a more egalitarian society. We had three hundred years of an unjust society and it will take time.
“If there was one thing I could change about my country it would be to close the gap between the rich and the poor. We have 12 million unemployed in South Africa.
“The end of apartheid and the dawn of freedom has not resolved all our problems overnight, but we continue to work towards a more egalitarian society and to share in the joys and sorrows of that project.”
His message to the Greeks of the diaspora?
“Know thyself and have pride in the Hellenic principles.”
If by those principles he means standing up against great odds for what is just, then I’m in his gang.
George Bizos is a man who makes me proud to be a Hellene.