Bizos: the end of an odyssey

Following closely on Rivonia triallist Andrew Mlangeni, who departed in July, the latest is no less a personage than George Bizos, who rode into the sunset on Wednesday. Armed with a razor-sharp mind and a tongue that could be as devastatingly acerbic as it could lend comfort to the oppressed,  Bizos devoted his entire adult life  to the practice of law; relentlessly punching holes and exposing the intellectual and moral  indigency of the apartheid system. For the most part, he won. In the instances that he lost battles, it was because the presiding judges were no more than apparatchiks of...
Following closely on Rivonia triallist Andrew Mlangeni, who departed in July, the latest is no less a personage than George Bizos, who rode into the sunset on Wednesday.

Armed with a razor-sharp mind and a tongue that could be as devastatingly acerbic as it could lend comfort to the oppressed,  Bizos devoted his entire adult life  to the practice of law; relentlessly punching holes and exposing the intellectual and moral  indigency of the apartheid system. For the most part, he won.

In the instances that he lost battles, it was because the presiding judges were no more than apparatchiks of apartheid, determined to shut their ears and minds to rationality and logic, rather than Bizos' inability to demonstrate the contrived nature of the charges against his clients. Nevertheless, lost battles did not mean loss of the war.

When 27 April, 1994 finally dawned, a new dispensation was ushered in, followed by the 1996 adoption of the constitution of the republic, in the inspiration of which Bizos played a not insignificant part. His emancipatory legal track record was a product and embodiment of  more than a century  of progressive politics which began in  Mediterranean Europe  and matured in South Africa.

It began with the 1821 to 1827 Greek war of independence from the Ottoman Empire, which had an impact on his family's political identity. In his autobiography, Odyssey to Freedom, Bizos records that his naming "was a complex decision involving family and national politics". His grandfather named him "George" after an uncle who was captured and killed by Bulgarian forces during World War I. The patriarch "proudly proclaimed that his son had not died in vain, that he had lost his life liberating a further portion of Greece from the Turkish yoke".

Bizos' father was a member of Laiko, a centrist political party that agitated for agrarian reform. "The great political divide among the Greek people at that time," he wrote, "was between those who supported the liberal democrat, Eleftherios Venizelos, and those who backed the kings of German origin, imposed upon the Greeks after the war of independence."

Bizos senior would be deposed as the mayor of Vasilitsi, his village, after Ioannis Metaxas seized power, with the support of the royalists, in August 1936, visiting mayhem on his opponents. By the time Bizos disembarked at Durban harbour with his father in October 1941 as refugees from German-occupied Greece, his political outlook had been hardened by the Fascist and Nazi upheavals that troubled Greece and her neighbourhood. The rest of Europe and the world were sucked in with the 1939 outbreak of World War II.

Bizos' politics soon resonated with that of the liberation movement in his adopted country, South Africa. The humanitarian ideals that inspired this movement, such as the right of the people to live freely with access to basic needs and the demand for agrarian reform, were the same that fired the struggle for Greek independence from the Ottomans.

Similarly, insofar as the rights of Africans were concerned, the Union government and later those of the apartheid state, were not far from the twisted logic of the Nazism from which he fled his country of birth. It was not surprising that the extreme pro-Nazi formation, the Ossebrandwag, arose during that period of South African history, such was the decadence of the intellectual and political milieu of the time.

As an immigrant, Bizos belonged to a category of South Africans whose immense contribution to our country requires emphasis especially now when some sections of our society seem overwhelmed by anti-immigrant impulses and sentiments tragically reminiscent of the mental cul-de-sacs of the past.

Think of people like Chief Albert Luthuli, who was born in Zimbabwe, Ray Alexander Simons of Latvian origin, Joe Slovo who came from Lithuania, Thomas Nkobi, who hailed from Zimbabwe and many others. This is not to mention hundreds and thousands of migrant workers who came in and out of South Africa throughout the last two centuries to work and develop the South African economy.

It is impossible to celebrate Bizos' life without appreciating the contribution of the Hellenic community to South Africa in the same way that we cannot celebrate our freedom apart from the input of the rest of the African continent and the world. To do so is to appreciate the rich tapestry and scrambled egg nature of our history and that of humanity as a whole.

It is also to acknowledge our common destiny, which in turn implies recognition of the futility of attempts to procure solutions as individual nation states in an increasingly integrating 21st-century world.

In the Odyssey, Bizos recounts an incident which occurred while he was in primary school. He had arrived late to class after his turn to read out aloud had passed. He did not apologise and seized the opportunity to read to the class as soon as the pupil who was reading upon his entrance had finished. The teacher, who was also a family friend, congratulated him for reading well, at which point Bizos sat down.

And then: "In a tone that I had never before heard from her, at home or in the classroom, she asked: 'Why did you not apologise when you came in late?' I had no answer. 'Who gave you the right to stand up and read when it was the turn of another? Don't you know that if you're the last to come in, you must be the last to take part?'"

The moral of the story? "It brought home to me that the son of the mayor was not going to be treated differently."

Could this incident have contributed to the strong sense of justice for which he was known all his life? Perhaps a challenge specific to our generation is that if we are in awe of the Bizos generation, as we are, it's because they did not cause a reproductive crisis in terms of the values which would have denied us figures to look up to.

Ratshitanga is a consultant, social and political commentator

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