George Bizos made heroic choices every day for 64 years
Generous with his time and resources, he helped many families unjustly affected by apartheid
I first met George Bizos in 2004 as a candidate attorney at the Legal Resources Centre (LRC).
He generously gave of his time to me and the many other candidate attorneys that passed through the doors of the organisation over the years.
He would happily spend time discussing matters we were having difficulty with, offer training in trial advocacy and give us the opportunity to assist with matters he was working on. It was a standing feature of the candidate attorney induction week to spend an afternoon with Bizos.
He was always engaging and jovial during these sessions and considered it important to assist and mentor the young members of the profession.
With the LRC being a walk-in law clinic, there were many occasions that potential clients met with Bizos in the lift or in the corridors on his way to lunch at the nearby coffee shop.
Bizos was polite and never turned anyone away — he listened patiently, always offering words of kindness and encouragement and more often than not ensuring that he and the LRC team assisted in some fashion. There were many occasions when Bizos listened to the plight of clients and was reduced to tears, that was the nature of the man.
In the early years of my career Bizos taught me that compassion and empathy had an important place in our profession and if we were unable to understand the pain and injustices suffered by our vulnerable clients, we were not going to convince a judge of it either.
In later years I had the privilege to work with Bizos in preparation for and during the reopened inquest into the deaths of both Ahmed Timol and Neil Aggett.
He joined the bar in 1954 and represented victims of apartheid throughout his career. At the height of apartheid Bizos courageously took on the establishment by representing detainees and the loved ones of detainees who had died at the hands of the notorious security police.
Bizos knew what he was up against then: a police force built on secrecy, lies and torture that acted with impunity and whose actions were sanctioned, enabled, and aided by the judiciary and other arms of government.
His phone at chambers was tapped; the security police held hours of mock trial to prepare for his cross examination; he was routinely followed and his car was tampered with. The security police were cleared of wrongdoing at the inquest court and yet Bizos was resolute: he never faltered and continued to expose the evils of the security police and to fight for justice for the activists and their families when the odds were always heavily stacked against them.
Bizos’s abilities at cross examination — whether in apartheid inquest courts, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the Marikana Commission in the new dispensation — were unparalleled.
He was overwhelmed with emotion when a favourable outcome was received in the reopened Timol inquest in 2017, but quickly said to me that we had a lot of work to do — there were other families waiting for closure and he had no intention of retiring because he wanted to help them.
How does SA adequately pay back the debt owed to this giant? How does one even begin to acknowledge and celebrate the life of a man who always chose to stand with the underdog, who always fought for justice and equality in the face of impossible odds?
Bizos did not follow this path because it was forced on him by circumstances beyond his control, he could easily have chosen a far less challenging and more lucrative path as a lawyer in commercial practice. He actively chose a path infinitely more challenging.
What was truly remarkable about Bizos — and there were many remarkable traits and achievements — was the heroic choice to fearlessly walk the path with the downtrodden and to seek out justice, a heroic choice not made for a day or a month but made every single day in a career at the bar that spanned a mammoth 64 years.
I salute you, I celebrate you, I mourn you, but mostly I am grateful to you: for your contribution to this country, this profession and for justice everywhere.
• Naseema Fakir is an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar and former attorney and director of LRC Johannesburg (2004-2018)
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