As a refugee, Bizos related to those who had been oppressed when he arrived in this country. Born in a coastal village in Greece, Bizos’ democrat father, Antonios, organised the escape of seven New Zealand soldiers who he found near his village during World War II. Young Bizos would accompany his dad on a fishing boat with the soldiers before being found by a British ship during a volatile sea day.
Eventually, having arrived in Egypt, Bizos was put into an orphanage. It was here that his father made a decision one could say added significantly to South Africa’s history. “We had a choice to either go to India or South Africa. My father had heard you could pick gold and diamonds off the pavement in South Africa – and that is how we got here.”
Bizos is nearly 88 years old. His memory of these events has, however, not faded. As his story unfolds, Bizos would be filled with both laughter and tears. His life was not easy. Some 54 years since the Rivonia Trial – where he was part of a team re- presenting the likes of Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada – Bizos is still working towards the greater good at the Legal Resources Centre. “I have been away from the office for very long. They must be wondering where I am,” Bizos would remark at the end of the interview.
Bizos said there were many things which led to him eventually representing various political struggle heroes. Upon arriving in Durban, Bizos said one of the first things he noticed was black men pulling heavy rickshaws. He remembered thinking farmers in Greece had used animals to “pull heavy things”.
After arriving in Johannesburg – penniless – Bizos’ father had managed to secure a job at an ammunitions factory in Pretoria. “He couldn’t look after me at the time. A man running a shop persuaded my father to leave me with him … and I would work in the shop and learn English.” Bizos was shocked that one of the cleaners had been given a third of a loaf of bread a day and four spoons of sugar for tea. “He would come to me and say: ‘I’m hungry.’ So I would secretly hand him a piece of beef.”
Bizos went to school, thanks to a female teacher who had spotted him working in the shop. Tears again fill his eyes as he recalls her making sure he had lunch to take with him. He described being disinterested in classes, however, and tells a story about being reprimanded for plaiting his fellow female student’s hair while in maths class.
While working for a wholesale businessman, Bizos struck a friendship with a fellow black worker, Jim, who’s boss was Greek. “His boss sang Greek freedom songs. Jim learnt them and would sing, and I would translate them. Jim would say: ‘Hey, this man wrote for us as well’.”
At Wits University, Bizos took an active role in assuring both black and white students were treated equally. His activities would draw the attention of government – especially when he had said he was “proud to be part of the leftist movement”.
After being admitted as a lawyer, Bizos became known for representing those in the struggle. He did not belong to any political party, however. “I became known in the fifties as the young, uppity political lawyer. I think I enjoyed the name. “The fact my father had been defrocked by a dictator … the fact there was a civil war in Greece … all those things had an influence on my life.” He eventually went on to convince Mandela to use the words “if needs be” in his infamous Rivonia trial speech. His inspiration in convincing Mandela was Socrates. “I was so inspired by what Socrates did. Socrates said: ‘I have done no wrong. What I have been preaching to you is right.'”
Bizos remembers his friendship with Mandela as one formed in the corridors of the courts. “You see, when you aren’t allowed to have this friendship, it makes you closer. We could not go for lunch together.”
Bizos loves Greece with all his heart. He only returned back home for a visit in 1972 – 31 years later. But that was not a visit; it was a pilgrimage.