It pained Bizos that as a refugee from Greece he was treated better than SA's black majority, says Ramaphosa

17 September 2020 - 16:53
By mawande amashabalala AND Mawande AmaShabalala
Advocate George Bizos was laid to rest on Thursday. File photo.
Image: Sowetan/Thulani Mbele Advocate George Bizos was laid to rest on Thursday. File photo.

The late human rights legal giant George Bizos was inspired by his own experience in his native Greece to fight for the rights of disenfranchised South Africans.

This is according to President Cyril Ramaphosa, who delivered the eulogy at Bizos' funeral service in Johannesburg on Thursday.

Bizos arrived in SA in 1941, aged 13, running away from “the flames of war” in his country of birth — Greece.

“His was a deeply personal experience of being treated like a second-class citizen in the land of one's birth,” said Ramaphosa.

It thus came as no wonder that Bizos, who was known for his role in the famous Rivonia trial, chose a life of being the shield for those against whom injustice was perpetrated.

Said Ramaphosa: “There can be no doubt that his personal background influenced and great will of empathy, compassion, passion as well as solidarity that drove George to practise his craft — the law.

“He was, in his own words, a lover of freedom and this love of freedom would put him on a collision course with the apartheid state.”

The apartheid regime thus denied Bizos citizenship for three decades despite his permanent residence.

But his fight for freedom of the then oppressed majority was unrelenting.

Ramaphosa added that Bizos's personal experience with injustice channelled him towards being an activist lawyer at whatever cost. Despite being denied citizenship by the apartheid government, he was still treated better than black people, and this bothered him.

“We read in his memoirs how it astounded him that he, a refugee from Europe, had more rights in SA than the black majority born and bred in this land,” said Ramaphosa. “He could not accept how he, a white immigrant, could be well fed, clothed, educated, while the native people of the country lived in squalor and deprivation.

“This George would not accept.”

Ramaphosa said Bizos's activism started when he enrolled at Wits University. It was here that he met the late former president Nelson Mandela whom he later defended in the Treason and Rivonia trials.

The two would be personal friends for more than six decades, united by the common belief in human rights and equality.

Said Ramaphosa: “At Wits he joined the student representative council and soon became involved in the struggles of black students on-campus. For this, the apartheid government punished him quite severely by denying him citizenship for over three decades.

“And there he was, living stateless in a country he had adopted.”

Ramaphosa lauded Bizos for his humility, emphasising that despite his struggle credentials, he never boasted to all and sundry about his life as an activist lawyer.

“Even when apartheid ended, he never brandished his past to cover himself in glory and to loudly proclaim to the world where he was and what he did during the fight for liberation,” said Ramaphosa.

“The courtroom was his front line and the law was his key weapon.”

According to Ramaphosa, Bizos was mainly guided by principles, ethics and conscience, hence his humility and refusal to affiliate with any political party during the struggle.