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George Bizos

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The human rights lawyer on being a refugee, being proudly Greek, being courageous and being a grandfather

George BizosTODAY the name George Bizos commands respect from every sector of South African society, even those he’s defeated in court — and there are many. But in 1941 when he first landed on South African shores at the age of 13 with his father, both as refugees from war-torn Greece, he had no idea that he would become part of South African history.

When the ship docked at Durban we didn’t know what to expect, but it was still a shock to see the “boys” who pulled the rickshaws at the harbour. To my young mind they were doing the job of animals. They were toiling under the boiling sun pulling pockets of potatoes, boxes of tomatoes. I knew this was wrong.

And then a day or so later we arrived in Johannesburg, only to find we couldn’t get off the train at our station. The “gray shirts” as they were called, were protesting against President Smuts bringing the “vuil goed” (the rubbish of Europe) into the country. They didn’t want us in “their” country!

One person believing in you can change your life. Despite this rocky start, I developed a great love for this country that gave me so many opportunities. The one person who set me on the right road was a wonderful teacher and woman, Cecilia Feinstein, from Jeppe High School. She was a tremendous influence in my life . I’d been working with my father in a grocery shop and, as a refugee with no English, I hadn’t been to school for three years. When she heard this she calmly told my father that she’d be there Monday morning to pick me up — which she did. Not just that, but she would take me back to her house and give me extra lessons.

When someone else believes in you — you do too. Embrace your roots — they make you who you are. I remember many times during my school and university years when topics around Greek history or philosophy came up. I was always first with the answer and so proud to talk about my heritage.

I grew up hearing tales of my ancestors, the Helots and the history of Greek oppression — generation after generation. I was named after my late Uncle George, who’d died in the war in 1917. In Greek families you normally take your grandfather’s name, but in this case I was given the honour of inheriting his name. I always felt I had to live up to that.

Each year growing up in Greece my father and grandfather would put on ceremonial dress handed down through generations to mark the 1821 War of Independence on March 25. The national anthem, a hymn to liberty, would be sung and our chests would swell with national pride. While still a new law student at Wits, many of my friends, like me, were from different cultures. Black, coloured, Indian — we just saw each other as students and colleagues. But this was 1948 and a new regime had just come into power, the Nationalist Party. They wanted to kick out a young Mozambican student, Eduardo Mondlane, (who went on to become the leader of Frelimo) just before he wrote his last subject, the reason being the new apartheid laws. This led to protests, with Prime Minister DF Malan being quoted in the newspapers as saying that he knew what was going on at Wits with these leftists who wanted to destroy the university. He said he’d have them kicked out and let reasonable students take over. That night in a packed Great Hall meeting I found myself, still a refugee without permanent residence, standing up and saying: “If being opposed to that makes me leftist, I’m proud to be one.”

Don’t let anyone bully you. With friends and colleagues such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Duma Nokwe and Chief Albert Luthuli, it was inevitable that I would become the person defending them during their trials.

People always asked if I wasn’t afraid of the police then. Funnily enough, the security police who watched us closely had a respect for advocates. But this gradually changed and one day John Vorster’s counsel came to see me to pass on a message. I was defending Bram Fischer at the time and the message was to tell me that my “rope was getting shorter”. Yes, I was scared, but nothing was going to stop me defending these brave people fighting for justice. I just didn’t tell me wife at the time...

You have to have a good propaganda machine to deny the humanity of your enemies and believe what you’re doing is correct. Can you imagine that the judge in the Rivonia Trial actually asked Walter Sisulu how he knew black people wanted the vote — just because he did?

My father wanted me to do medicine, but my terrible Afrikaans mark put paid to that. I was told if I started law, I could transfer to medicine later. But after my first ethics lecture I was hooked and there was no going back. Today two of my sons are surgeons and another an engineer, so maybe I did make my father’s dream come true. Out of my seven grandchildren, only the youngest girl of 14 shows an interest in law, but I know so well that you have to let them find their own way.

There’s no age where you should stop using your knowledge for good. To d a y, at the Legal Resources Centre, I’m back at my roots, working for the rights of refugees. When I’m in court I don’t think of my age. The other day a judge asked me if I would like to sit down while presenting a case. My response was: “The day I have to do that, I’ll retire .” And as a colleague once told me when we spoke about retirement, his wife married him for better or worse — but not for lunch. — Marion Scher



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Marion Scher is a member of the Southern African Freelancers Assocation

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