The South African

Special official funeral for the people’s lawyer George Bizos


President Cyril Ramaphosa has declared a Special Official Funeral Category 1 – a laudation reserved for the most distinguished South Africans – for the late human rights lawyer and social activist Advocate George Bizos.

The President has also directed that the national flag be flown at half-mast at every flag station in the country from Saturday, September 12 until the evening of the Special Official Funeral on Thursday, September 17.

Bizos and Arthur Chaskalson attend Nelson Mandela’s first rally after his release. Chaskalson was part of the defence team in the 1963 Rivonia Trial and became the president of the Constitutional Court and then the chief justice. Photo: Ken Oosterbroek Collection/Africamediaonline

Ramaphosa described Bizos, affectionately known as the people’s lawyer, as one of the best legal minds in South Africa who contributed immensely to the attainment of democracy.

“George Bizos was a well-known name and he had an incisive legal mind and was also one of the architects of our constitution who contributed immensely and he will be sorely missed. We dip our heads in honour of the contribution he made to our democracy.”

Adv. Bizos dedicated his legal career to fighting for basic human rights, while representing numerous high-profile activists in political trials including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other accused in both the 1956 Treason and 1963 Rivonia trials.

A life of service

  • Studied at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand, where he met Nelson Mandela, a fellow law student
  • Represented some of the South Africa’s best known political activists during the apartheid years
  • Part of the team that defended Mandela and others during the 1964 Rivonia Treason Trial
  • Credited with adding the words “if needs be” to Mandela’s famous speech at the trial, in which he said he was prepared to die
  • Became one of the architects of South Africa’s new constitution after the end of apartheid in 1994
  • Represented families of anti-apartheid activists, including Steve Biko and Chris Hani at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
  • Led the inquests into the deaths of Biko and Neil Aggett in detention. 
  • Led the team to oppose applications for amnesty by the murderers of Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto, Sicelo Mhlauli and Ruth First.
  • In 2004 got Zimbabwe’s late opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai acquitted on charges of plotting to kill then-President Robert Mugabe
  • In one of his last major trials, he secured government payouts for families of 34 workers killed by South African police at the Marikana Minein 2012

Glowing tributes for a legal legend

Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, penned a heartfelt message, saying Bizos is “the last of Madiba’s closest friends to depart.”

“Madiba and George [were] more than special friends, they were two souls with [an] uncompromising zest for justice. In different trenches, but complementing each other in a remarkable journey of six decades, of loyal friendship and brotherhood, walking hand in hand.”

When former chief justice Ismail Mahomed joined the Johannesburg Bar, he could not keep chambers because of apartheid. Bizos intervened. 

“George and Arthur Chaskalson allowed Ismail to squat in their chambers, to make sure that he could work. That was his generosity. Even in a time that was completely inhuman, he did what he could to make sure Ismail was able to practice, that his dignity was not impugned,” said TRC commissioner Yasmin Sooka.

Nkosinati Biko, Steve Biko’s son, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission trial in East London. Photo: Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive

Advocate Howard Varney, who worked with Bizos at the Legal Resources Centre and on the Marikana inquiry, said the death of the legal giant “removes a cherished link to the historic fight against evil and injustice.”

During the 2017 inquest into Ahmed Timol’s torture and death in police detention, Bizos attended court every day for six weeks offering advice and counsel to Varney and his team.

South Africa’s former public protector, Professor Thuli Madonsela, said Bizos “fought a good fight in pursuit of a Just South Africa that belongs to all who live in it.” Protection Status


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