Comrades and friends: Human rights advocate George Bizos in his office on January 26 2010 in Johannesburg. Bizos met Nelson Mandela in 1948 at Wits and was part of the legal team that defended Mandela. During Mandela’s imprisonment, Bizos was a source of support for him and his then wife, Winnie. Picture: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Comrades and friends: Human rights advocate George Bizos in his office on January 26 2010 in Johannesburg. Bizos met Nelson Mandela in 1948 at Wits and was part of the legal team that defended Mandela. During Mandela’s imprisonment, Bizos was a source of support for him and his then wife, Winnie. Picture: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

65 Years of Friendship

George Bizos


SA’s legal legend George Bizos has still, at the age of 90, not shelved his law tomes. And one of the three books he has written, No One to Blame?, was handed in as an exhibit in the reopened Ahmed Timol inquest. It has been speculated that October’s judgment, which ruled that Timol’s death was murder at the hands of the security branch, could open the doors for other apartheid killers to be held accountable for their misdeeds.


Bizos worked on the 1972 Timol inquiry, represented Steve Biko’s family after his death in 1977 and appeared for Neil Aggett’s family at the inquest into his death in detention in 1982.

He says there is a "strong possibility" of further court cases delving into the deaths of anti-apartheid activists following the Timol inquest.

"Biko and Aggett are now top of the list," he adds.

"We hope to persuade the minister of justice and the National Prosecuting Authority to bring such cases to court, and that it will not be necessary for them to be as detailed or take as long as did the Timol one."

At an age when most people can’t find their front door keys, Bizos has not only written another book — which evocatively, often amusingly and always fascinatingly, details his relationship with Nelson Mandela — but he continues to zealously pursue justice.

His voice might falter at times but his mind does not as he plucks facts, figures and memories from it.

Bizos proved in his first two books, No One to Blame? and his memoir, Odyssey to Freedom, that he’s an excellent writer and alluring storyteller.

He begins his Mandela friendship memoir with, "This is a short book about a long friendship." It started in 1948 at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he and Mandela studied law. It was the year the National Party got into power and began to flex its apartheid muscles, with one MP complaining about a university where, "k…..s and white people sit in the same room", Bizos says.

The day after he heard that, he made an impassioned speech at Wits about the necessity "for the democratic treatment of our black students. If that makes me a leftist then I am proud to be one," he recalls.

Mandela sought him out afterwards and their friendship began. It survived several of SA’s historic events from the late 1940s to Mandela’s death in December 2013.


At least one person was sceptical about the friendship, believing they might have been client and counsel or comrades — "but were they friends?" asked advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi.

"This book not only dispels my doubts … their friendship transcended race, culture, generation, politics and life itself," Ngcukaitobi writes in a series of tributes in the memoir.

In 1956, Mandela and 156 "co-conspirators" from the Congress Alliance who had helped to draw up the Freedom Charter were arrested on charges of treason.

Bizos attended the preparatory examination held in Johannesburg’s Drill Hall, where the accused were crammed into a giant metal cage.

"Someone had attached a small handwritten sign to it: Do Not Feed," he writes.

When they appeared in court, a member of the defence team, said angrily to the judge: "They appear before the court caged — like wild beasts."

Such vignettes make the book a lively and insightful journey through SA’s recent history, even if it makes for grim and traumatic reading at times.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s ill-fated relationship is one such trauma.

"George, I have married trouble," is one chapter heading.

And so it proved to be.

Mandela asked Bizos at the end of the 1963-64 Rivonia Trial, as he left for Robben Island, to "stay out of trouble and look after my family". Within a year, Winnie’s banning order, which severely restricted her movements and visitors, was extended for five years, making Bizos’s task more difficult. In 1977, she was banished to Brandfort in the Free State.

Bizos was for some years virtually the only means of communication for the Mandela family and eventually was visiting his internationally famous prisoner friend every few months.

When Mandela’s daughter Zenani married a Swazi prince, Bizos was asked to handle the customary marriage rites. He also appeared on Winnie’s behalf when a wife was suing her husband for divorce, "on the grounds that he was having a love affair with Winnie". Bizos was able to tell Mandela that the claim had been dismissed. "‘I do not expect her to lead a monastic life, but I do expect discretion,’ he remarked softly, almost whimsically," he writes.

By the time Mandela was moved to Victor Verster Prison in 1988, it was clear the couple’s relationship could not be called a happy one.

"She visited him frequently but refused to spend the night with him, although this was permitted," writes Bizos.

A year after Mandela’s release, Winnie was charged with the abduction and assault of Stompie Seipei and four others. Although by then the couple were hardly speaking to each other, Mandela asked Bizos to represent her. "I took on the case at once," he writes.

Divorce was inevitable but it is heartbreaking to read Bizos describe the break-up as "the four years after his release were the loneliest of Nelson’s life".

He relates the happy times, too, such as the first and only holiday the friends had together. Fittingly it was in Greece, in 2002, with their wives Graça Machel and Arethe.

Bizos and his father had left their family home in Greece in 1941 to help seven stranded New Zealand soldiers escape their Nazi-occupied country. They ended up in SA.

The similarities between Mandela and Bizos are noteworthy. They both loved their vegetable gardens; Mandela’s father died when he was 12-years-old, while Bizos had a strained relationship with his father. Mandela’s mother died of a heart attack the same year that Bizos’s father succumbed to gas inhalation in a freak accident.

Bizos writes of momentous matters in SA’s history, such as Mandela’s fury at FW de Klerk during their shared Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony, with the same attention to detail he uses to describe his graduation from liver to lobster meals on the infamous Robben Island.

It pains him that "ill-informed South Africans accuse Mandela of selling out" and that there is criticism of the Constitution.

"Have they read it?" he asks.

The last words that Bizos heard his friend utter came as he left Mandela and Graça Machel after the three of them had enjoyed a meal at their Houghton home.

"Nelson no longer finished his sentences," he writes. But as Bizos bade them farewell, Mandela suddenly said, "George, don’t leave your jacket behind."

Simple, caring words that convey a lifetime’s mutual concern for each other.


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