The late George Bizos. Picture: CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES/LOUISE GUBB
The late George Bizos. Picture: CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES/LOUISE GUBB

Shortly after the last remaining Rivonia treason trialist, Andrew Mlangeni, passed away, the death of legal icon George Bizos marks the end of an era characterised by selfless leaders whose sacrifices ushered in the 1994 democratic SA state.

This golden generation’s departure shines a spotlight on the values that underpinned SA’s quest for a non-racist, non-sexist, democracy – values Bizos, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others modelled for the new SA.

Fondly called “Uncle George” by Mandela’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Bizos was our young democracy’s uncle. In a foreword to the 2007 memoir, Odyssey to Freedom: George Bizos, Mandela bemoaned that his family was “rather partial, in fact, to their Uncle George!”. Friends for almost 60 years, he said Bizos “never once hesitated to assist where and how he was able, and is considered a member of our family”.

While Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island and other jails, Bizos was “one of my major lifelines”, he said. “When I was hospitalised during my time at Pollsmoor Prison it was he, a wholly trusted confidant, who I could send to assure Oliver Tambo in Lusaka of the preliminary negotiations I was conducting for the release of our comrades and plans to end apartheid,” Mandela recalled.

Throughout Mandela’s imprisonment, “George unwaveringly shared our confidence that freedom for all and the dawning of democracy in our country was inevitable”.

As refugees and at the tender age of 13 in 1941, Bizos came to SA with his brave father, who had fought the Nazis, after a trying voyage from the forces of World War 2 fascism sweeping through their native Greece. Mandela and Bizos first met at then-white Wits University where Bizos, a student representative council leader, confronted institutional discrimination against black students legislated by the government and implemented by the university administration.

Much like myself and many others in our country, who are South Africans first and foremost but are of Hellenic extraction, Bizos’s odyssey straddled both the country that gave him birth and the one that adopted him, and neither has deceived him. Mandela once poignantly stated that Greece is the mother of democracy, and SA its youngest daughter.

Covid-19 ... has laid bare the nation’s racial economic clefts, which remain after 26 years

Of course, the apartheid authorities, in whose side the young lawyer Bizos was a constant thorn, reminded him that he was in SA “under sufferance”, as late apartheid-era police minister Jimmy Kruger once contemptuously said. Unlike most of his fellow white compatriots, Bizos used his privilege — which the apartheid leaders reluctantly extended to the Greek community — to throw his personal and legal weight behind the struggle for a democratic and equal society.

He has left our generation with a challenge to rid our beautiful country of apartheid residue, which today manifests in racial tension, inequality, poverty and unemployment. We owe it to Bizos, Mandela and their generation to rid our country of economic disparities, particularly among the voiceless and most vulnerable in our society.

Poverty has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Lived experience by many South Africans sadly tell us that we need to redouble our efforts to achieve social cohesion as a prerequisite to directly confronting inequality, poverty and gaping unemployment.

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the SA economy, adversely affecting both lives and livelihoods. It has laid bare the nation’s racial economic clefts, which remain after 26 years. The pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink the future of SA and work together on an accelerated economic recovery programme focusing on inclusive growth and prosperity for all citizens.

With GDP in the second quarter of 2020 shrinking by 51%, there is no louder clarion call to build an inclusive economic future. An opportunity exists to reset the country’s course, but this requires decisive leadership and urgent delivery. It is time we stopped talking and started delivering — restoring business and consumer confidence, accelerating GDP growth and protecting and stimulating jobs.

The private sector can help access local and foreign investment, implement national projects, create new businesses and jobs, and grow the tax base to strengthen the fiscus.

The best farewell gift we could give to Bizos is ethical leadership in both the public and private sectors. We dare not drop the Olympic baton Bizos, Mandela and their generation have handed us.

• Nicolaou is chair of the Hellenic, Italian and Portuguese Alliance and a member of the Brand SA board.

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