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Bizos had Matla a Tlou: The strength of an elephant

- Wits University

Remembering Advocate George Bizos.

Wits University hosted a memorial service to celebrate the life of one of its esteemed sons, Advocate George Bizos, who passed away on 9 September.

The memorial took place following the government’s relaxation of the Covid-19 lockdown regulations. The first official public event of the University since the lockdown, the memorial provided an appropriate moment to reflect on the past, present and the future through the life of the Wits stalwart and alumnus.

Professor Adam Habib, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal fondly remembered Bizos’s presence during the height of the #FeesMustFall movement in 2015, where Bizos, as a concerned patriot and Witsie, navigated negotiations between Wits executives on the 11th Floor and the protesting students.

Despite many stories to share about the celebrated human rights lawyer, Habib felt that the greatest value, at this moment, would be to reflect on the life of Bizos and fellow Wits alumnus, the late Nelson Mandela.

Speakers at the the memorial service for Advocate George Bizos

“I want to use [George’s] life and that of his brother, Madiba, to speak about bigger truths to our world. We live in a world of identities, where the pigmentation of your skin, your culture, your religion or your language is seen to define all of you and what you can be. But here were two brothers who defied this.”

Bizos, a native of Greece who came to South Africa as a refugee at the age of 13, loved Greece, its culture and its traditions and yet he was quintessentially African. “He was both Greek and African and saw no contradiction in being both,” said Habib.  

Madiba, the father of a democratic South Africa, became an icon to the world. “He became a symbol of justice and peace in Europe, in Asia and in large parts of Africa,” noteworthy examples of the human spirit defying fascist and racists ideologies.

Hinting at recent nationalist developments in African and in the Global North, Habib warned that “there is no hope in these nativist identities as there is no hope and future in their political projects”. History is littered with failed dictators like Hitler, apartheid architects and extremists.

Habib’s speech was followed equally profound reflections and tributes from friends of Bizos, former clients and legal practitioners, across the generations,  who remembered the master strategist and humble servant to humanity.

Nicknamed “Matla a Tlou” – the strength of an elephant

Advocate Gilbert Marcus recounted Bizos’s endurance at the Delmas Treason Trial, one of the longest trails in South Africa which took 437 days in court over a period of 37 months.  

The legal team, led by Justice Arthur Chaskalson, included Bizos, Zac Yacoob, Karel Tip, and Marcus assisted by Matthew Chaskalson, then a law student.

“The presence of George Bizos and the trial Judge, Kees van Dijkhorst in the same courtroom over a lengthy period, was an accident waiting to happen. They were polar opposites. Van Dijkhorst was precise, cold, authoritarian and clever. George was effusive, warm, generous and also clever. The trial soon became a battle of wills, and clashes between counsel and Judge were frequent,” recalled Marcus.

One of the notable moments of the Delmas Trial included a day in court in which Bizos presented the 500 “incidents” that had occurred in the trial concerning the Judge’s behavior. These “incidents” ranged from concerns about interjections by the Judge to accusations of impatience and a lack of fairness.   

The story of how the Judge insisted that Bizos address each of the 500 incidents, the court stenographer in tears, and the Judge refusing to release her, is captured in Marcus’ tribute.

Zeenat Sujee, an attorney who had the privilege of Bizos representing her when she launched her application to be admitted as a lawyer, lauded Bizos not only for his commitment to his clients but his dedication to growing the profession. On the day of the hearing of her application, Bizos was ill but nevertheless made the trip to Pretoria to testify about her competency.

He ”celebrated the entrance of young lawyers to the profession”, said Sujee, and some of his lasting lessons are: fulfill your undertaking to the client regardless of what life throws at you; and treat people in a manner that makes them feel valued and important.

This was echoed by Professor John Dugard who highlighted two remarkable qualities that distinguished Bizos. The one was his understanding of political trails, and the other his ability to relate to the course of, and encourage, his clients, said Dugard.

“He was a master strategist and presented cases in such a way that the government would not be able to control the nature of the proceedings,” said Dugard, also a legal wizard. 

Among the greats on the memorial programme were Professor Bonita Meyersfeld, a human rights lawyer at Wits, and Mr Glenn Moss, a former Wits SRC president whom Bizos represented when the government clashed with liberal students.

Bizos’ granddaughter, AnaSofia Bizos, also a final year LLB student at Wits,said her grandfather was a proud Witsie until the end.

“It was Wits that in many ways set the course for my grandfather’s life,” she told guests in the Great Hall and those joining online.

She expressed confidence in the University’s role in helping society overcome its challenges.

“The stories told exemplify what the Wits experience is about. As students we are challenged to not only grow in our academic journey, but also to grow our social and political consciousness. I believe it’s also at Wits that these life-long friendships are born”, she said, referring to Bizos and Madiba’s friendship of 60 years.

The friendship of two of Wits’ greatest sons defied all odds and became a shining light to the world.

WATCH the memorial online: