Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

George Bizos, the renowned human rights lawyer, is surrounded by old photos of his late friend Nelson Mandela and other memorabilia at his office in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa. (Erin Conway Smith for The Globe and Mail)
George Bizos, the renowned human rights lawyer, is surrounded by old photos of his late friend Nelson Mandela and other memorabilia at his office in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa. (Erin Conway Smith for The Globe and Mail)

Ahead of South Africa’s anniversary, Mandela’s comrade still fighting Add to ...

At the age of 85, after decades devoted to battling the apartheid police and fighting for the prison rights of his close friend Nelson Mandela, the human-rights lawyer George Bizos should have settled into retirement long ago.

Instead the past year has been one of the busiest of his legendary career – and not just because of the stresses of trying to resolve Mandela family feuds. His biggest challenge today is a familiar one: struggling to limit the excesses of a brutal police force, and helping its victims seek justice, just as he did under apartheid.

As South Africa prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its democracy on Sunday, it can look back on many achievements. But the tireless toil of the elderly Mr. Bizos at the inquiry into the Marikana massacre is a reminder that South Africa still endures human-rights disasters of the kind that were supposed to disappear when apartheid died.

A few months ago, Mr. Bizos mourned the death of his comrade, Mr. Mandela, the liberation hero who became South Africa’s first democratic president in the historic election on April 27, 1994.

But when the funeral was over and Mr. Mandela was buried, the lawyer went back to his work: investigating the police misconduct that led to the massacre of 34 mineworkers, shot dead at the Marikana platinum mine during labour protests in 2012.

“I have represented victims of police violence over the last 55 years,” Mr. Bizos said in an interview. “I didn’t think it would be necessary during a democratic regime. I’m saddened by it.”

It’s a common theme among many veterans who fought against apartheid. While they see improvements since 1994 – a racially fairer society, a stronger economy, progress against hunger and poverty, better housing – they also see problems that are disturbingly similar to the apartheid days.

Mr. Bizos says there are “substantial similarities” between the police behaviour under apartheid and today.

“When Mr. Mandela took office, he took steps to demilitarize the police,” Mr. Bizos said. “He succeeded. … But after Mr. Mandela’s retirement, new ministers came in. The officers who were demilitarized were not very happy with the changes. They reintroduced militarization, and I think that was one of the reasons why Marikana happened.”

Is it strange that he’s still fighting police violence today, 60 years after he started his career? “It’s regrettable but not strange,” he says, speaking in a voice that is faltering and weakened by age, but still eloquent. “Power, even in advanced democracies, is abused.”

As South Africa approaches a national election on May 7, several of Mr. Mandela’s former colleagues have openly expressed anger at the corruption that has tainted the ruling African National Congress and President Jacob Zuma. They were outraged at the revelation that the government spent $23-million (U.S.) on “upgrades” to Mr. Zuma’s palatial private home in Nkandla village. Led by Ronnie Kasrils, a former cabinet minister and comrade of Mr. Mandela, some veterans have even begun urging South Africans to vote against the ANC next month, or to spoil their ballots. Retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, a key anti-apartheid leader, says he will not vote for the ANC this time.

Mr. Bizos diagnoses the country’s problems as a combination of the lingering influence of apartheid and the greed of some post-apartheid leaders who have forgotten how Mr. Mandela resisted corruption and cronyism. “The bad manners that you learn during [apartheid] are difficult to shake,” he says.

“There are people in government who had reservations about the handing over of power to the majority of people. They are wealthy, they are influential, and they have control of some of the important professions. And it is inevitable, even for those blacks who had fought against the apartheid regime – some of them become spoiled, and consciously or unconsciously follow the example of their erstwhile oppressors.”

Mr. Bizos, born in Greece, came to South Africa in 1941 with his father as a refugee from the Nazi occupation. He studied law in Johannesburgat the University of the Witwatersrand, where he met Mr. Mandela and was drawn into human-rights issues, often challenging the segregation and discrimination suffered by the tiny handful of black law students at the time.

He became a lawyer in 1954, assisting Mr. Mandela in human-rights cases and helping defend him from treason charges at a trial in the late 1950s and from sabotage charges at the famed Rivonia Trial in 1963-64, where Mr. Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders faced the death penalty.

When Mr. Mandela drafted a fiery speech from the dock saying that he was prepared to die, Mr. Bizos persuaded him to add the words “if needs be” – a strategic tempering of his offer of martyrdom, which may have helped to save the ANC leader from the gallows.

When Mr. Mandela was jailed at Robben Island, it was Mr. Bizos who visited him and gave him news of his comrades, at a time when Mr. Mandela was so isolated that not even a photo of him existed. Mr. Bizos defended his second wife, Winnie Mandela, from repeated persecution by the regime. And in the secret negotiations to end apartheid, Mr. Bizos shuttled between the imprisoned leader and his exiled comrades to keep them united.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Bizos played a key role in drafting the South African constitution, using the Canadian Charter of Rights as one of his inspirations. He also campaigned successfully to abolish the death penalty in South Africa, and more recently he has campaigned against the ANC’s “secrecy bill” that could criminalize whistle-blowers. He was a close friend of Mr. Mandela until his death, travelling with him to Oslo when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Mr. Bizos says he never expected to be ending his career by again cross-examining police officers who had killed people. At the Marikana inquiry, he has helped expose a cover-up of the police’s role in killing 34 miners, including several execution-style murders. It was the same kind of cover-up he had confronted at the inquests of political victims such as Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist who was tortured by police and beaten to death in police custody in 1977.

“The finding was almost invariably, ‘no one to blame,’” Mr. Bizos recalls. “There was an obvious tendency of the police to conspire to lie. They got together and put a story forward. The magistrates would swallow it.”

The difference today, he says, is that the Marikana inquiry is headed by an independent-minded judge who is less likely to accept the police version. Its report is expected to be issued later this year, and South Africans will find out if the police this time will escape justice.

Follow me on Twitter:


Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular