Dr Khulu Mbatha pays tribute to Advocate George Bizos (14 November 1927 – 9 September 2020), a South African human rights lawyer who has just departed our shores…
Standing trial for having left the country illegally and so on, Nelson Mandela used the court’s platform to pronounce on principle and policies that his organisation stood for.
After explaining his motives for joining the struggle of the African majority against a white minority oppressor group, Mandela stated: “The African National Congress further believed that all people, irrespective of the national groups to which they may belong, and irrespective of the colour of their skin, all people whose home is South Africa and who believe in the principles of democracy and of equality of men, should be treated as Africans…”
For the racist authorities presiding over the case, this was it. The communist influenced Mandela would never change. He should be punished heavily for just leaving the country illegally, for at that stage they had no knowledge of the training Mandela acquired outside.
But I am convinced that when Mandela made the above statement, he had people like George Bizos, Ruth First, Bram Fischer, Ahmed Kathrada, Joe Slovo, Amina Cachalia, Beyers Naude and many others in his mind. His own experiences had convinced him that there were men and women in this country who belonged to different national groups, but were equally committed to democracy and a life of equality.
These men and women were prepared to do everything as long as they lived to realise this dream. George Bizos stands out among those whose daily life and occupation was to remove apartheid.
Like many of us the name of Bizos was almost the same as that of the Mandelas. Physically though, I first met him during my exile days in his country of origin, Greece.
As foot soldiers on the international scene, we were there to mobilise the world to support our course. What most people do not know is that Bizos was also with us quietly helping us to convince the international community to put pressure on racist South Africa. I was the ANC’s Chief Representative in Greece and had joined the Association of West European Parliamentarians for Action against Apartheid (AWEPA) to invite him to a conference in Athens. In Greece, Theodossis Georgiou was the main co-ordinator of AWEPA. AWEPAA is an international parliamentary association that is strictly non-partisan that was founded by European parliamentarians in 1984 as the initiative of Jan Nico Scholten, a former Dutch politician and law specialist. As President of AWEPA he travelled through Europe, the United States and Canada to coordinate and mobilise support for sanctions in the struggle against the apartheid regime.
In 1985, while demonstrating in front of the South African embassy in Washington D.C., he got arrested and spent a night in prison reading a prayer book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The theme of the conference organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Greece under the umbrella of AWEPAA was, “Frontline States, How to counter SOUTH AFRICAN DESTABILISATION”. It was held on 20 – 21 October in 1988. Bizos was the guest speaker and participants came from around Europe and Africa, Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Greece and Mozambique, Karolos Papoulias and Pascoal Mocumbi, and Zimbabwe’s Speaker of Parliament from 1980 to 1990, Didymus Edwin Mutasa. We also had Sipho Mpofu from Botswana’s Foreign Ministry, Saki Macozoma from the South African Council of Churches, the Dutch activist Klaas de Jonge and Abdul Minty who led the World Campaign against Military and Nuclear Cooperation with South Africa from Oslo.
The conference applauded the message Bizos delivered and got into the business of how to intensify sanctions. I had time to get direct news about the situation at home from both Bizos and Macozoma. Participants took time to visit the old Olympic village in Olympia which is four hours away by bus from Athens. After this conference, I went to visit Vasilitsi, the village town where Bizos was born on the peninsula of the Peloponnese.
Before I left Greece I made sure I also learned Greek so that I can speak the ‘two-Gs’ of Europe with ease, German and Greek. I maintained my friendship with Bizos when I returned from exile.
Around 1992/1993 the ANC ran out of funds. The organisation could not pay for salaries at the end of one month. The staff was up in arms. President Mandela and Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa, were forced to call a meeting with all staff to assure them that this matter will be addressed as quickly as possible.
That same afternoon Mandela summoned Bizos to his office. I was assigned to go with Bizos. In one evening he had personally driven me to three places around Johannesburg. We met Greek business people who, when Bizos explained the situation, opened their coffers and made donations.
The following day I carried the donations to the office of Thomas Nkobi – Treasurer- General. Within a week Bizos had mobilised enough funds to keep the ANC on its feet and to do well in the negotiations that were taking place.
For me, George Bizos was not just an ordinary human rights lawyer. He was a revolutionary throughout his life. He survived because he taught himself how to survive under all circumstances in order to bring about change.
He did so much for South Africa, there are no words to thank him. Hamba Kahle Comrade George! (Comrade George – That’s how I called him.
Hamba Kahle Comrade George! (Comrade George – That’s how I called him).
Καλό ταξίδι φίλε μου, ο Μαντέλα και ο Μπραμ Φισερ περιμένουν την ενημέρωση σου
Kalo taskidi file mou, o Mandela kai Bram Fischer perimenoun tin enimerosi sou! (Go well my friend, Mandela and Bram Fischer are waiting for your update!)
Dr Khulu Mbatha is an advisor to President Cyril Ramaphosa, an author, a columnist and a diplomat.