Renowned human rights lawyer George Bizos has been remembered for his hatred of oppression and inequality, which he is said to have carried with him until he drew his last breath.
These were some of the sentiments shared by many during his funeral on Thursday.
President Cyril Ramaphosa and former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, who was his long time friend and mentee, were among many who paid tribute to Bizos, describing him as a “giant” who had contributed immensely to South Africa’s freedom.
Ramaphosa had declared this a special official funeral category 1 for the social activist who died last week at the age of 92.
“When it was not fashionable, George Bizos chose the side of the oppressed,” said Moseneke during his tribute.
Bizos represented many struggle heroes, including Rivonia triallists like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni, Denis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada.
It was the lawyer’s “if needs be”, caveat that is believed to have spared Mandela from being taken to the gallows in apartheid South Africa.
“He deeply hated oppression, inequality and unfairness to his death bed,” said the former deputy chief justice.
Moseneke recalled many years of working alongside “Baba Bizos”, sharing anecdotes and tales from living in the lawyer’s home when they were defending late struggle icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in the Stompie Seipei matter, trips to Robben Island to defend striking workers, and the relationship the two had with South Africa’s founding president, the late Nelson Mandela.
Moseneke also told a handful of mourners -, due to Covid-19 regulations which only permit 50 people at gatherings – at the Hellenic Centre in Hillbrow, of the awkwardness he had experienced after becoming a Constitutional Court judge and then having his mentor appearing as counsel before him.
He said: What a stamina, what resilience, what steadfastness, what dogged commitment to justice, to freedom, to others with whom he had no racial or ethnic or ethereal or external attributes – he cared only because they too were human.
Ramaphosa told mourners, including Bizos’ children, that a “great baobab had fallen”.
He praised Bizos, not only for his work in the courtroom, but for being there for the families of Steve Biko, Ahmed Timol and Neil Aggett who were killed by the apartheid government while in custody.
Reflecting on Bizos’ life, the president said the renowned lawyer – who arrived in South Africa aged 13 as a refugee from Greece – was destined to be an activist lawyer and champion of the liberation struggle.
Both speakers spoke at length about how Bizos could not accept the oppression being meted out against the black majority while he, as a refugee, enjoyed even more rights solely because of the colour of his skin.
They both praised him for continuing to work beyond the retirement age, alongside young lawyers at the Legal Resource Centre who he treated as peers, as well as the passion he poured into the SAHETi School, which he founded and continued to support.
“He was on the right side of history. When the democratic government fell short or big business, he and colleagues would come in. We do owe it to his legacy to finish what George started,” said Ramaphosa without making mention of the Marikana tragedy.
The president has been lambasted over his alleged role in the 2012 killing of striking miners in Marikana, during his time as a non-executive director at Lonmin mines.
His language and call for “concomitant action” have been, in part, blamed for police opening fire on mine workers. He has long committed to visiting the small North West community to apologise, but is yet to do so.
Bizos represented the families of the slain workers during the Farlam commission of inquiry.
Ramaphosa said the law must continue to be an instrument of protection for the most vulnerable against individuals, businesses or even the state.
“It seemed at times that his energy was limitless, neither the onward march of age or frailty could keep him from the court room,” said the president.
Speaking of Bizos’ ability to speak his mind, his lack of care for the “airs and graces” of politicians and his continued pursuit of justice, Ramaphosa said the country and the legal fraternity were poorer for this loss.
“George was indeed the son of the soil, not born of it, but a part of it. He did move the earth, he was patriot. He became a citizen of South Africa and a proud one.”
He urged young people to tap into the social activist’s spirit and pursue human rights law.