It is with a deep sense of shared sadness and pain that we gather to mourn the passing of Advocate George Bizos. Uncle George’s death is a tremendous loss for all who endeavour to create a South Africa and a world in which human rights for all are honoured and valued. His family has openhandedly shared their father with the nation for many decades, and now, in his passing, they continue to generously allow us to bask beneath Uncle George’s warmth and wisdom. We offer our sympathies and heartfelt condolences to the family, friends, comrades, and colleagues of Advocate George Bizos.
We gather to commemorate the life and work of one of our most revered human rights lawyers, Advocate George Bizos.
As a great storyteller of life, Greek legends, and South African history, Uncle Bizos was himself a living history whose humanity, work, friendship and dedication to serving others, provided a deeper understanding of how memory, culture, race, language and class can be used to combat oppression and prejudice.
Allow me to begin with a quote from Uncle George:
“I have lived through the joys and sorrows of the South African people, that’s what really binds you to a country.” – George Bizos
In 1941, George Bizos was only 13 years old when he and his father fled the Nazi occupation of Greece. They helped another seven New Zealand soldiers escape the clutches of the Nazis by rowing in a small rowboat that drifted in the Mediterranean Sea for days before being picked up by a British destroyer ship. As they fled the armed conflicts and violence, they were taken to a refugee camp in Egypt before making their way as migrants to South Africa where Uncle George adopted this country as his own.
Uncle George had no citizenship and remained stateless for 31 years both as a refugee from Greece and under the apartheid government that refused him South African citizenship on the grounds that he was “not fit and proper”. Besides this, he remained a loyal contributor to South Africa and the future of its people.
The movement of people has played an important role in shaping Africa and the world for thousands of years. Environmental, economic, cultural and political changes led to large historical migrations, which were disrupted and torn apart by European colonialism, bringing economic exploitation, violent oppression, political domination and cultural change.
But history did not end then; population movements are in constant motion and the ghosts of the past now set the stage for the conflicts of the present, and our responses to migrants and refugees have exposed enduring and dangerous fault lines in our societies.
Every day, around the world, oppressed people make one of the most difficult decisions in their lives: to leave their homes in search of freedom and a safer, better life. They seek to rebuild their lives in a different country for work, for education, to flee persecution, to escape human rights violations, war and torture.
Migration remains central to the politics, economy, society and formation of culture on the African continent. This raises fundamental questions to our response as a nation, the politics of identity and the ideals of humanity.
What started in the hope for a better future, these treacherous journeys to build a new life are often met with racism, xenophobia, discrimination and further violence.
Are we treating these migrants differently to how Uncle George was treated? Are we denying an opportunity to an abundancy of Advocates such as George Bizos? South Africa’s undocumented migrants, economic refugees, and asylum seekers look for hope and opportunities in South Africa yet have been largely excluded from our society. There is a rush to send the oppressed back to their troubled homes, rendering them stateless beings, floating between borders. However, given the opportunity to register into education, to apply their minds, skills and creativity, to become professionals in their own right, would we not find a bounty of advocates, specialists, contributors and builders such as Uncle George?
Uncle George was a towering legal mind who shaped South African jurisprudence over decades in the court, leaving an indelible mark on the human rights legacy for the country. Uncle George was an incredible repository of knowledge and possessed a fine memory that was able to connect situations and bearings in completely different settings to reveal the nub of any problem.
His deep knowledge of the ordinary lived experience of the people sharpened his ability to find the answers to intractable problems. Through his approach he was able to distil complex, multi-layered cases from one-page briefs and by considering history and using his unique skill, Uncle George knew exactly which string to pull to undo a Gordian Knot. Through his methods he was able to cross examine police and State witnesses and, in that way, counter the prosecution and achieve justice against all odds.
Uncle George’s history and legacy offer us an intimate look at the power of humanity to overcome the world’s greatest evils from escaping Nazism in Greece to bringing down the Apartheid government. His struggle for a new South Africa was deeply rooted in his belief of human rights for all.
In an address to the University of the Witwatersrand in 2016, Uncle George reflected on his humanist beliefs and the attainment of our democratic goals, saying:
“We have perhaps never before in our post-1994 democracy been confronted as starkly with the realities of inequality as we were with the recent student protests. South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, and the struggle to remedy that continues. The meaning of freedom for me still finds its point of departure in the opening paragraphs of the Freedom Charter of 1955. It stated powerfully that:
“We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know:
that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people;
that our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality;
that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities;
that only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief;
And therefore, we, the people of South Africa, black and white together equals, countrymen and brothers adopt this Freedom Charter;
And we pledge ourselves to strive together, sparing neither strength nor courage, until the democratic changes here set out have been won.”
In his fight for humanity, Uncle George would not only represent high-profile individuals but would defend and safeguard the rights and integrity of less-known individuals from every stratum of society. He embraced the essence of the human condition and used his profession to serve the underdog, to protect the weak and marginalised, and he took that fight consistently. For the families, comrades and communities of his clients, Uncle George acted as a confidant, advisor, and therapist. He invested his heart and soul into their cases, cases that proved emotionally and personally exhausting for those on the side of human rights.
One such example was with Gertrude Mpekwa:
In the 1950s, the apartheid government introduced passes for women and gave A4 size passes to African women in rural communities, thinking that the operation would be met with little resistance (these passes were large and bulky, needing their own special satchel bag to carry them, making the pass feel more like a prisoner’s metal ball and chain.
In Zeerust in the North West Province, Gertude Mpekwa and two others were charged on nine counts of contravening the sections of the Criminal Law Amendment act promulgated in 1953 in response to the Defiance Campaign where the women of this rural community were sentenced for burning their pass books. It was Gertude Mpekwa who mobilized rural women and collected thousands of these passes and burnt them. George Bizos represented Gertrude.
Uncle George answered his calling as a public defender, fighting the system, and upholding the ideals of a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, united and prosperous society based on justice, equality, the rule of law and the inalienable human rights of all. His lifelong commitment to these ideals left a legacy in South Africa’s constitution and bill of rights.
In his biography entitled, “Odyssey to Freedom”, Uncle George began the chapter on the Constitution with a quote from Former President Nelson Mandela, in which he says in reference to the Constitution that:
“[It] is a living document. Our understanding of its requirements will and must adapt over time. But the fundamental principles are and must be unchanging. Full understanding of how and why those principles were adopted will help us to ensure that we remain true to the solemn undertakings which we have made to each other and to those who will follow us.”
We are the ones who follow and it is all our responsibility and obligation to not only adhere and honour the fundamental principles but to breathe life into the constitution as a living document.
As the hardship of the poor increases, as the bodies of South Africa’s girls and women receive constant attack, and as the project of social cohesion stagnates, so does our ability to adapt and to energise the constitution lag behind what Madiba so distinctly envisaged.
South Africa needs to look beyond our familiar ways of doing business and understand that what has worked in the past is clearly not good enough today. Our journey of renewal certainly depends on us all ensuring that we remain true to the solemn undertakings which we have made to each other and the next generation.
Are we as society, as leaders, and as defenders of the people, listening and hearing their cries? to the stories that unfold under our watch? Are we taking heed to the caution of Uncle George’s own life-story as a champion of the oppressed or are we rapidly creating our own South African myth of tragedy?
Advocate Bizos was a brilliant lawyer, an outspoken human rights activist and loving human being who was equally incorruptible in thought and deed – a defender humanity – respected by all South Africans. Our beloved Uncle George.
Condolences to his family. May his soul rest in peace.
I thank you.