George Bizos was a master at ’politics by other means’

I’m deeply saddened by the passing of advocate George Bizos on Wednesday, September 9, 2020.

I first met him in April 1971 when he came to see me at the Johannesburg Fort (now Constitution Hill), where I was being kept as an awaiting trial prisoner after having spent over six months in detention following my arrest with Ahmed Timol.

Whilst I was in detention he appeared together advocate Mr Issy A. Maisels Q.C. as my father Ismail Essop’s counsel in the case my father brought against the security police for torturing me. This case was heard twice (October 28,1971 and February 28, 1972) in the Supreme Court in Pretoria, with my father’s counsel effectively winning a landmark legal victory when it was ruled by the judges the security police should desist from unlawfully assaulting, interrogating, pressuring or torturing me.

George in particular was extremely sensitive about what had happened to me. Not only did he directly approach my father to offer him emotional support (my father, at one stage even believed I had, just as Timol had, died) but also explained to him what the judges’ ruling really meant. My father was enormously proud George had done this so personally.

Years later, in the reopened Timol inquest held in Gauteng’s high courts (Johannesburg, Pretoria) in June-October 1972 he gave a very moving testimony about how my father tried to save my life after I was taken in a comatose state from John Vorster Square to be hospitalised. What he said about my father’s concerns about me is fully documented in the inquest transcripts and also, to some extent, in Judge Billy Mothle’s judgement.

George testified that in the application brought by my father on behalf of me, District Surgeon Dr Vernon Koch, who had examined me in detention on Tuuesday, October 26, 1971, failed to mention the multiple injuries that he had noted on me.

George remarked Koch was disingenuous to the court, saying the following: “It was obvious that Dr Koch had lied under oath when he stated that he had not seen any injuries. He attempted to explain himself by claiming that he was not asked by the lawyer to say whether there were injuries on Essop, but merely to deal with the question whether or not Essop had the specific injuries described by his father in his original affidavit.

Koch had said that the injuries he saw differed from those described by Mr Ismail Essop. It was also argued that disclosing the injuries would reveal information about the detainee…. The judges hearing the application did not adversely comment on Koch’s lack of candour or the correctness or otherwise of his alarming interpretation of the Terrorism Act.” (Quoted in Billy Mothle’s judgement)

Before George went into the witness box to give his testimony Howard read out parts of legendary lawyer Sydney Kentridge’s forward to the book, which highlights why apartheid-era magistrates so readily accepted the unconvincing police excuses and had no real intention to reach a true verdict: “Consciously or unconsciously they seem to have seen it as their duty to protect the organs of the state at all costs.”

George was, of course, also the advocate representing the Timol family in the first inquest in 1972.

He attended nearly all of the 19 days of the reopened inquest, which were spread over three months, when evidence was presented about the circumstances about Timol’s detention and about Timol’s likely experiences at John Vorster Square before being killed on October 27, 1972.

What’s most precious for me is the fact I was able to sit next to George every day in court and he was able to read the notes I was making as he was having some difficulty in hearing.

I joined him every day of the reopened inquest for lunch, and he shared with me numerous stories and anecdotes about South Africa’s struggle heroes, about anti-apartheid politics, about his career, and, last but not least, about his own personal life and experiences in Greece and South Africa.

One of the most striking stories he recounted to me was his close-lipped attempt to approach fellow advocate Fannie Cilliers to raise the matter of my treatment in detention with none other than Prime Minisiter B. J. Vorster. George told me this intermediary came back after meeting the PM in Cape Town to give the PM’s reply. The PM was adamant the security police could do no wrong, and he had full trust in what this ‘special branch’ of the police force were doing, emphasising it only carried out its duties lawfully.

I’ll remember George, as no doubt many, many in South Africa and abroad would, as the lawyer who fought tirelessly against the injustices of apartheid and who did his utmost best to defend opponents of the apartheid regime, representing them in political trials or their families in inquests.

George was a past master at engaging in what has been called ‘politics by other means’, in other words in using the law in the struggle against apartheid. For him, the legal sphere was a site of struggle, in which he was able to act with enormous talent and skills to establish victories for defendants and their families alike.

Hambe Kahle George!

  • Salim Essop is a retired politics lecturer / professor, who was Fulbright Scholar and a former detainee at John Vorster Square and Pretoria Central Prison and a former political prisoner on Robben Island.

OPINION: Salim Essop