How we got here

2012-10-20 08:52

Carien du Plessis revisits a documentary on the life of George Bizos that will hit the small screen next week

How ironic and sad that an man like George Bizos should be representing people who were apparent victims of state violence in a state now run by the same people he represented a decade or two earlier.

He turns 84 next month and you’d much rather imagine the old man to have retired to the tranquillity of his childhood seaside village in Greece, having made his stamp on history by fighting the apartheid regime in South Africa’s courtrooms.

But last month, Bizos was again in the news, this time representing the Human Rights Commission and the families of miners killed in the Marikana shootings in August.

Bizos is remarkably agile for his age, and can climb stairs and tend to his plants without too much apparent effort. And he still works as a senior counsel at the Legal Resources Centre in Joburg.

The upside for any client is that the man has more than 50 years of experience in his back pocket, more than most human rights lawyers around.

Bizos, who rarely cross-examines from notes, says he uses his plants to try out his questions in the morning, either aloud or in his mind.

Topping the A list of struggle protagonists Bizos has represented over the years is Nelson Mandela, who has become his lifelong friend and who makes an appearance on Here Be Dragons, a touching documentary on Bizos’ life.

The 90-minute film, directed and produced by Odette Geldenhuys, was first shown on the big screen back in 2010 and is scheduled for public broadcast on SABC1 next week.

Although the film on the big screen possessed a distinct cinematic quality, it is no less touching on the small screen.

It’s a beautifully?told story about the life of Bizos: the grandfather, the lawyer, the refugee, the husband and the avid gardener. A truly rare treat in the documentary genre.

Here Be Dragons opens with footage from Bizos’ 80th birthday banquet in 2008, which was attended by, among others,
struggle icons Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

Bizos in a black suit and bow tie creates the filmic impression of a period drama, which is made even more touching by the thought of the greatness of these men, but also their frailty and age.

Following this is footage of Mandela and an interview with Mandela’s then wife Winnie, youthful and beautiful, during
the Rivonia Trial, which saw her husband spared the death penalty but sentenced to life in prison.

Bizos remained close to Winnie for decades after Mandela was sentenced. After all, Mandela had asked him to look after the family before he was shipped off to Robben Island.

Since then, Bizos has represented Winnie in more than 20 cases, including the controversial Stompie Seipei case.

Seipei, aged 14, was suspected of being an apartheid police informer and was abducted by Winnie’s security guards on December 29 1988. He was found on New Year’s Day 1989 with his throat slit.

In 1991, Bizos successfully appealed Winnie’s six-year kidnapping sentence, which was reduced to a fine.

The doccie shows a panel discussion at the Cape Town Book Fair in 2007, where Judge Dennis Davis and the late veteran MP Kader Asmal probe Bizos on the controversial case.

Bizos said what was important at the time was the state of mind that led Winnie to do what she did.

Fascinating and touching is footage of Bizos with his family in their Greek birth town, Vasilitsi.

In 1941, at the age of 13, he fled Nazi-occupied Greece with his father Antonios after the two helped seven New Zealand soldiers who were hiding in the hills.

He arrived in South Africa that same year as a refugee and, because he couldn’t speak English or Afrikaans, he initially ran away from school.

But a teacher convinced him to go back and, a few years later, in 1948, he enrolled for a law degree at Wits University, where he also became politically active.

Former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson, a good friend of Bizos, tells of how he always worked under the threat of deportation because he was never granted citizenship. Chaskalson says: “He was extremely vulnerable, but despite that vulnerability, he
never hesitated to do what had to be done.”

Seeing the clips of Bizos at work in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 90s – where he led a team on behalf of the Biko, Hani, Goniwe, Calata, Mkhonto, Mhlauli, Slovo and Schoon families that opposed applications for amnesty – you
get an idea of what has made him a legend in the profession.

But it also speaks of his disappointments, such as when Craig Williamson, the former apartheid police major, was granted amnesty. Williamson was accused of having addressed a letter bomb to exiled anti-apartheid activist Marius Schoon, which ended up killing Schoon’s wife, Jeanette, and his daughter, Katryn.

Or when Harold Snyman, the man who led the interrogation of Steve Biko in prison before he died, was not charged after he
was refused amnesty.

“I did not believe the high-ranking politicians who suffered from apparent amnesia. They didn’t go far enough in their admissions,” Bizos says in the film.

His anger at this apparent denialism prompted him to write the book, No One to Blame? In Pursuit of Justice in South Africa, which was published in 1998.

The Marikana inquiry might well prove to be another disappointment. Fraught with politics and emotion, a witness in the inquiry has already been shot.

Families of the deceased also claimed they were not given the means to attend the inquiry, which lawyers, including Bizos, argued was an injustice.

We are lucky to have Bizos around. He serves as a conscience, reminding us that the long and difficult road we had walked as a nation should not be in vain.

For those who need more reminding, this film is a compulsory refresher course.

» Here Be Dragons will be broadcast on Tuesday and again the following Tuesday, October 30, at 9pm on SABC1

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