Evolutionary pressure is stimulated by great events. Cataclysms, in particular, let the strongest shine. South Africa has, for centuries, been the social equivalent of a violent tidal coastline filled with danger and sudden-death that stimulated the creation of great people.
And we walk amongst them.
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die,” said Nelson Mandela speaking at his Rivonia treason trial in 1964.
His lawyer at that trial, and that of Govan Mbeki (our current president’s father) and Walter Sisulu, was another GB. George Bizos.
Speaking at the launch of his new book, “Odyssey to Freedom”, Bizos was “interrogated” by two other greats of the freedom struggle, Professor Dennis Davis â€“ now a judge â€“ and Kader Asmal, our ex education minister.
“And you’re not going to get to ask questions,” joked Davis, “for sitting before you are the three most loquacious men in South Africa.”
The Rivonia Trial was central to the making of Bizos’ career. He would go on to embarrass the Apartheid government on a regular basis. He revealed the true extent of state torture in the suicide of Dr Neil Agget in 1982, he researched and presented the terrible torture and abuse that preceded the death of Steven Biko (of “Cry Freedom” fame) in 1977. The judge who read Bizos’ report declared, “It leaves me cold.”
Yet it is a little-known trial at Dalmos in the mid-1980s that is most revealing of Bizos’ courage. The judge in that case sought to introduce evidence on behalf of the prosecution, “My Lord, it would be best to allow the prosecution to present evidence on its own behalf.”
“Why,” asked Davis, “did Dalmos get such short shrift and Rivonia so much attention?”
“By 1985 the writing was on the wall,” said Bizos. “The minimal armed struggle couldn’t be put to an end. The public had turned against Apartheid. The leading banks wouldn’t honour Apartheid debt and 30 000 people were in detention without trial.”
“Rivonia was crucial,” acknowledged Davis. “One can imagine what would have happened if Mandela had been sentenced to death. But why wasn’t he? In your book you lay the blame on the defence, on Dr Yutar. You wouldn’t even have a beer with him now.”
“Not even tea,” nods Bizos. “He was too enthusiastic. He espoused the government’s propaganda. He tried to take on the defendants but came a bad second against the likes of Walter Sisulu.”
Kader Asmal chimes in at this point, “You’re like a legal version of Zorba the Greek.”
“I don’t dance as well.”
“But your wife says you’re better looking than Marlon Brando,” says Davis.
“And I speak better too.”
All of this humour and irreverence makes the whole thing seem easy. That the vanquishing of Apartheid was a simple party trick that anyone could have done. It wasn’t that easy and it wasn’t that pleasant. Lawyers were murdered. Opposition activists dropped out of helicopters in Namibia. This is what a police state does.
“By embarrassing the government so often we may have, inadvertently, necessitated the government’s creation of the secret hit squads. That way it was beyond the law and we couldn’t do anything,” says Bizos. And the press, by exposing the stories, resulted in censorship and attack against newspapers.
This is the experience of journalists in every country that speak truth to power and embarrass them. There are few politicians anywhere that can face exposure with humility and contrition. Most reach for the law book to figure out how to shut the press down. Our new government no less than our old one has emasculated oversight commissions designed to prevent the abuse of power.
Do those, like Bizos, who choose to fight dictatorships on their own ground give legitimacy to those systems? “I am not interested in academic debate,” states Bizos. “I’m interested in representing the people who asked for help in defending themselves. Justice was abused and insulted by the line of murderers, torturers and abusers who were let off by magistrates and judges.”
“I do not claim that the legal profession saved the country, but we did make a contribution.”
When Sidney Kentridge, one of the most influential attorneys of his day, lamented that the Rivonia Trial had achieved little, Bizos responded, “Due to your efforts the world jury has already convicted the Apartheid state. We have made what use of the space available to us to make people see. If there is space available to push basic human rights then we must pursue it. The families of the victims are the final people to make the decision about what to do.”
Speaking to the ANC on the run-up to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Bizos said, “We gave the Nationalist government a good go. Many of you will be in government soon. Be sure that we will be watching you.”