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SA celebrates life of human rights stalwart George Bizos

SA celebrates life of human rights stalwart George Bizos
September 11, 2020
September 11, 2020 September 11, 2020

ASHRAF MAHOMED pays tribute to ‘an extraordinary lawyer who stood with poor against the powerful’.

A LEGAL giant of the liberation struggle, and perhaps in the history of our country, died of natural causes at 17:30, on September 9, 2020.

Our condolences go to his family and loved ones. We mourn the loss of a good man – a humanitarian and a fundamentally decent human being.

Advocate George Bizos SC was an extraordinary lawyer, filled with courage, who stood with the poor, marginalised and indigent against the powerful throughout his life.

Amongst all his extraordinary qualities, George Bizos had literally only one flaw – that he was colour blind but in a truly non-racial sense!

He was a very good judge of character, extremely intuitive and took his time to get to know people.

George Bizos associated himself with human rights causes almost immediately after he commenced practice as an advocate, in 1954.

During his illustrious legal career, he represented prominent people associated with the struggle against apartheid, among others: Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Trevor Huddleston, Mac Maharaj, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu, Albertina Sisulu, Ahmed Timol’s family, Steve Biko’s family, Neil Aggett’s family, and many more.

He also represented Chris Hani’s family during a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing, where Hani’s assassins had applied for amnesty.

Advocate Bizos at the Apartheid Museum during the launch of the book, The Man who Killed Apartheid: The Life of Dimitri Tsafendas. (Photo AHMED KATHRADA FOUNDATION/ ZAAKIRAH VADI)

His reach extended beyond our borders and he represented Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change of Zimbabwe, when he was charged with planning a coup d’etat there.

He was instrumental in forming Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), in 1978, and the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), in 1979. After building his career at the Johannesburg Bar he joined the LRC, in 1991.

Many of us had the privilege of working with him there, mainly on housing and eviction cases, and on other lesser-known cases, from 1999 onwards.

He mentored generations of human rights lawyers, many of whom have gone on to hold high office.

He taught young lawyers to use the law to change the lives of everyone for the better. He taught us to respect the power of law yet, at the same time never to bow down to an unjust law.

He taught us to strive to be decent, honest and efficient lawyers.

George Bizos made an enormous contribution to the law and the development of our jurisprudence, in Southern Africa.

At the dawn of our democracy, he helped draft our constitution and defended it vigorously.

He also led the government team that argued the certification of the constitution case, in 1996. More recently, he led a team of lawyers from the LRC at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry.

He held many significant positions including serving on the Judicial Service Commission, being appointed an acting judge in South Africa and a judge of appeal in Botswana.

He was awarded honorary doctorates from University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town and Walter Sisulu University, and received several other awards, both locally and internationally.

But in the end, when all is said and done to celebrate his life, he stands out as a very humble man who loved people, to tell stories and to attend to his plants.

He used to say that he practises his cross-examination skills on his plants and that they were better witnesses than the apartheid security police.

We dare not fail his memory, especially his empathy for the poor!

The writer is Manging Director of Ashraf Mahomed Attorneys and worked with George Bizos at the Legal Resources Centre. He also serves as a board member of the Dullah Omar Institute (DOI) for Constitutional Law, Governance and Human Rights.

Featured image: George Bizos, who was one of the lawyers in the Timol inquest, and Steve Biko Foundation CEO, Obenewa Amponsah, in the background. (Photo AHMED KATHRADA FOUNDATION/ ZAAKIRAH VADI)

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