George Bizos, to the end a warrior for justice and the constitution
He spoke out unflinchingly against corruption, cynical attacks on the independence of the courts, police brutality, and the slow pace of socioeconomic change
I got to know George Bizos while working at the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) for almost a decade from 2008 to 2016.
George himself had joined the LRC in 1991, spending almost three decades at the organisation. I joined the Constitutional Litigation Unit (CLU), where he was also based, as a junior attorney, then became an advocate and left as the unit’s director.
George used to enjoy introducing me to people as his “boss” and observing their bemused reactions. We became close colleagues and friends, within the extended LRC and public-interest community.
Towards the end of George’s LRC years, he was reunited with his dear friend, Arthur Chaskalson, until Arthur passed away in 2012.
George used to enjoy telling the tale of how Arthur more or less tricked George into giving up his private practice and joining the LRC full-time during the constitutional transition. The two were strikingly different personalities, but shared a deep, loving friendship.
For me, they personified the two dimensions of the LRC’s mission — Arthur representing the strategic use of the law to tackle structural injustice, and George the law clinic’s function of providing daily, unglamorous legal support to every person who walked through the door. These two dimensions made the LRC one of the world’s leading public-interest law centres, and epitomised these two great friends.
Throughout his time at the LRC, George drew a modest salary, probably less than a tenth of what he would have earned in private practice. Indeed, George was appalled to hear what many advocates and attorneys in private practice charge and earn.
Arthur would spend one day a week at the LRC after his retirement as chief justice. On those days, George and Arthur would take the junior LRC advocates out to lunch at George’s beloved Café Boccaccio in downtown Johannesburg.
George would share Greek greetings with Vaitsa and Archie, who ran Boccaccio, and exchange gardening advice. During lunch, George and Arthur would share stories from the past, and grapple with the current challenges facing SA.
The walks to and from lunch always took about twice as long as they should, because we would be stopped several times by people who knew George. They would remind him that he had represented them or a family member during a political trial under apartheid. The memory would flash back to him, and he would share some detail of the case, and take some time to ask how the person and their family were doing all those years later. This happened almost every lunch trip.
It is well-known that George acted in many of the famous political trials, such as Delmas and Rivonia, but he acted in countless more, and the people he fought for never forgot.
In his last few years at the LRC, George ate lunch in the office kitchen, with the rest of the staff. He always insisted on sharing his lunch with us, especially the salad grown in his own garden. There would also be more stories. Apart from old court cases, George would often talk about his family — his wife, Arethe, and his sons and the rest of the family. He was especially proud of his grandchildren. He would also talk about his other great institutional love, alongside the LRC: Saheti School, which he helped to found and of which he remained the greatest supporter.
Towards the end of his career, George was no longer appearing in court as often. He donned his robes again, though, whenever he felt the call.
His final cases included rushing to court to seek bail and freedom for Zimbabwean asylum-seekers and migrants arrested in a night-time raid on the Central Methodist Church, Johannesburg, in 2008, recalling in court how he, too, had come to SA as a refugee.
He also continued, to the end, to pursue the unfinished struggle for justice for apartheid atrocities, including seeking justice for the killers of murdered activists Ahmed Timol, Neil Aggett and others in whose inquests he had appeared during apartheid or whose families he had represented during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
These events are captured in his book, no-one to Blame, and certainly for George this is unfinished work.
George did lead the LRC into one last major battle in the Marikana commission, where the LRC represented the family of slain mineworker John Ledingoane and an NGO. When George was placing the LRC on record at the start of the commission, he famously also said that he represented the constitution, brandishing a pocket-sized constitution in his fist.
George believed profoundly in the constitution. It represented for him the pain and sacrifice of many friends, colleagues and clients during the liberation struggle, and their dreams for a different SA.
He struggled to understand some of the recent criticism of the constitution. For him, it was not the constitution that represented a betrayal, but we, in government, civil society, business, as individuals, who are betraying the constitution and one another when we fall short of what it demands.
He was deeply disturbed in the later years by corruption, cynical attacks on the independence of the courts, police brutality, and the slow pace of socioeconomic change. He spoke out unflinchingly to the end on these and other failings.
At the LRC in Johannesburg, we had a tradition of farewell lunch gatherings when a staff member was moving on. All the staff who were in the office would gather, share food and then offer messages of thanks and farewell to the person who was leaving the organisation. George was always at the heart of these gatherings. He would take a few quiet moments to speak privately to the person who was leaving, to understand what they were moving on to and what was happening in their lives.
He supported me through my own difficult decision to leave. In the public sharing of words at these gatherings, George would offer eloquent gratitude for all that colleague had done for the LRC, its clients, the country and for him personally, often with his glistening eyes and breaking voice laying bare his sadness at the parting. He would send each departing colleague off with a powerful call to keep fighting for justice in the world and a long, warm handshake.
• Jason Brickhill is an advocate and academic. He worked in the constitutional litigation unit of the Legal Resources Centre with George Bizos from 2008 to 2016, as director from 2014. He is now teaching and completing a doctorate in law at the University of Oxford.
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