This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The lives that were lost during this horrific terrorist attack remain etched in history, a reminder that security and freedom cannot be taken for granted. Countries around the world stood in support of the United States and at “Ground Zero” the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas is being rebuilt and repurposed as a national shrine in honor of those who died during the attacks.
South African Ambassador to Greece Beryl Sisulu (l) and George Bizos’ granddaughter Sophia Bizos (r) unveil the plaque on the newly named George A. Bizos Square in Vasilitsi, in Messinia, on Sunday. The ceremony was attended by local government officials and several members of Bizos’ family. [Messinia Press]
The theme of freedom and democracy were highlighted in all of the domestic and international tributes. Poignantly, in Greece, another site was also commemorated for these same themes. The relatively unknown village of Vasilitsi, a village in the southwestern Peloponnese, paid tribute to one of its own: George A. Bizos who passed away on 15 September 2020. The center square of the village was named last week “George A. Bizos Square” in front local politicians, South African Ambassador to Greece Beryl Sisulu, and members of the Bizos family. Most politicians, historians, or activists would be unaware of Bizos and the formidable role he played in the contemporary history of South Africa.
Bizos was born in 1927 in Vasilitsi. During World War II, George’s father Antonios helped a group of New Zealand soldiers to hide from the Nazis. The soldiers were able to escape and took George and his father along with them. They arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, and from there went to Durban, South Africa, and later settled in Johannesburg. George studied law at the University of Witwatersrand and met fellow-student, Nelson Mandela. George took on political cases and was involved in many high profile political cases, and was lead counsel for anti-apartheid activists.
George Bizos, with Nelson Mandela in 2008. He helped draft South Africa’s new constitution, which came into law in 1996. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Bizos was best known for helping negotiate the release of his friend Nelson Mandela in 1990. This was not the first time he had intervened on Mandela’s behalf. At the Rivonia trial of 1963-64, Mandela had prepared a statement from the defendants’ dock: “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. 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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized.” The statement concluded with the phrase “it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. Bizos reworded his final phrase because he felt that “surely Nelson wanted to live and accomplish what he and his organization [African National Congress] strove for”. Bizos looked back to the ancient Greeks and considered that “Socrates might have saved his life if he had not challenged the Athenian jury in so resolute a manner”. Bizos’ instincts were correct. The small rewording of Mandela’s statement to the jury proved pivotal. Mandela and the other defendants avoided the death penalty and were sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state.
By the 1980s, violence had risen in South Africa and growing pressure was placed on the apartheid government to legalize the ANC and release some of the political prisoners. Bizos helped negotiate Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990. In 1994, Mandela became president of South Africa and quickly appointed Bizos to the Judicial Service Commission. Mandela also selected Bizos as part of the team to draft and implement a new constitution. According to Ambassador Sisulu, Bizos “continued to do more for our nascent democracy following the 1994 democratic victory that he had so ably helped to secure”. For Bizos, his dedication to freedom and justice will not be forgotten.