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Never afraid to speak his mind, Bizos' life has been an odyssey

By unknown | Jun 09, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

As he walks the streets of Johannesburg, either to court or the offices of the Legal Resources Centre, one elderly man, due to turn 80 in November, gets the sort of instant recognition reserved for Nelson Mandela.

Depending on who he speaks to, he'd be addressed as Ummeli Omkhulu - the big lawyer - to Oom George, the Afrikaans word for uncle that has crept into use across the various languages.

Despite his impressive body of work and curriculum vitae, Advocate George Bizos remains a humble man.

The story of his life has been told. It is just a chat with Papou, grandfather to six grandchildren from his three sons.

His life story won him a Sunday Times Literary Award nomination this week.

His autobiography, Odyssey to Freedom, stands proudly side by side with Mark Gevisser's The Dream Deferred, a biography about President Thabo Mbeki, and Charles van Onselen's The Fox and the Flies, a take on Jack the Ripper as the three finalists for the prestigious Alan Paton Award.

The book is a tome and took the genial man of the law almost a lifetime to complete. He says in the preface: "I started more than 15 year ago, but as soon as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its hearings in 1996, I had to stop."

It is, in the words of book reviewers, a must-read!

His old friend Madiba, who wrote the foreword, says the book is "not only a personal account of an extraordinary life but an invaluable addition to the historical record of our nation".

Bizos himself says the award "has a special significance for me whether I win it or not".

The late Alan Paton, who penned the epic Cry, the Beloved Country, was a witness at the Rivonia Trial, where Bizos was under instruction from Bram Fischer, the legendary legal hawk.

He has a special place in his heart for the memory of Paton, a true patriot he recalls being subjected to a vicious attack by the prosecutor, Percy Yutar, at the famous trial.

The Alan Paton judges sum his book up thus: "This epic story of an extraordinary life takes its readers on a journey into many of the untold aspects of South Africa's past and offers a fascinating insight into one man's life and a country's destiny.

"Bizos is the embodiment of the principle that all that is required for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing. He is an example of a good man who took a stand against evil."

This, indeed, is George Bizos, the man who has handled more political trials than any other lawyer in South Africa - hence the reverence and awe on the streets of Johannesburg!

Bizos hit these shores - the Durban harbour - in October 1941 with his father, refugees from Greece "with no money and no prospects".

Young George was 13!

The current spate of xenophobic attacks resonates with him: "I find it very sad because I myself was a refugee and generally speaking, I was very well received."

An Afrikaans teacher, a Meneer Combrink, who tried to poke fun at his situation would come up against the resolve of a 16-year-old pupil who challenged the teacher to either apologise to Bizos or he was going to report him to the headmaster.

Combrink apologised and was subsequently so nice to Bizos that "he actually gave me special lessons in Afrikaans so I could pass in order to get to university".

Bizos got the required E pass to go to university.

"On the whole," says Bizos, who was in a group of 145 refugees who came to South Africa on that day, "the right to refuge and asylum is an important one to oppressed people and people in distress in their own country, just as I was after the Nazi occupation in the country I was born in."

Bizos says xenophobia, "which is a Greek word, has an opposite - philoxenia, which is "love for the stranger".

With a knowing grin he chuckles that "it's about time someone learnt this philoxenia because in ancient times a stranger and a guest were the same word".

He speaks Greek, he says, though he lost a bit of it "until I became chairman of the school, Saheti".

The school, on the border of the city and Bedfordview, is not only a Greek school.

"We have children from 26 ethnic groups."

Chris Hani sent his children to the school.

We pause as he takes a call. It is his daughter-in-law, Monique, he says after hanging up.

"I don't know where Cresta is," says the man who has lived at the same Parktown North house since 1958.

He still drives, he says, but "not to foreign places. I get lost". He drives "if I know the way".

He was going to persuade Alexi to drive him there, he assured Monique.

I don't ask who Monique is married to among his "boys" Kimon, Damon and Alexi. Two are doctors while the other is an engineer. None of his grandchildren have expressed an interest in law, says Papou.

He's been married to Arethe since 1954.

With slippers on his feet, he's in an old golfer's hat and a warm jersey that probably has its own story to tell.

In the two days we've been trying to track him down, he said he'd not be available since he was due to attend a special session of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC).

But thankfully, there are other matters Bizos can speak about - Zimbabwe and more specifically, the woes of an old client, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Do you make friends with clients?

"Yes, especially in political cases because they know you have sympathy for their cause."

Tsvangirai is, in Bizos' book, a Zimbabwean patriot.

"He's very brave, not afraid of the consequences in pursuing the cause he considers to be right. He admired Mugabe as a leader of his free nation.

He was a trade unionist who supported government policies until Mugabe and his cronies said there was no need for trade unions - that the government was the trade union."

Though it's said sometimes he's not a good politician, he leads the party that won the election and that speaks volumes about his capabilities, says Bizos, who thinks Tsvangirai is a man of the people.

"If he's allowed to take his place, there can only be good days ahead for Zimbabwe."

He leads us out of his study, crammed with books in English and his native Greek, and takes us out to his vegetable garden.

Another call comes through. He has to be ready.


Arthur Chaskalson, Nelson Mandela, Wim Trengove ...

There's no more time.

This was a conversation, remember, not the story of his life. It'll continue some day, when the calls stop interrupting him.

There's a lot to talk about. Like his four honorary doctorates, sharing an orange with teen terrorism accused and their mothers and how he wished he could have prosecuted those high up in the apartheid hierarchy.

So long, Oom George!


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