George Bizos, a workhorse attorney who campaigned against apartheid in South Africa and defended his lifelong friend Nelson Mandela in court, died in Johannesburg on Wednesday. He was 92.
Bizos died of natural causes around 5:20 p.m. local time at his home, said Luzuko Koti, a spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The human rights lawyer was surrounded by his family at the time of his death, Koti told the Daily News.
Born in 1927 in Greece, Bizos moved to South Africa as a teenage refugee of World War II. He met Mandela at the University of Witwatersrand in 1948; both were involved in activism on campus, and they quickly became friends.
Years later, Bizos served as a defense lawyer in the Rivonia Trial in which Mandela and others were tried on charges of sabotage.
He urged Mandela, who faced the death penalty, to include three small words — “if needs be” — in a statement at the trial in 1964 pledging his willingness to die for a democratic South Africa. It has been suggested that the addition may have spared Mandela his life.
“It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve,” Mandela said of democracy. “But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
The legendary political leader was sentenced to life in jail and went on to become the president of South Africa three decades later, as the country dismantled its oppressive apartheid system and formed a democratic government.
Neeshan Balton, the director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, a South African civil rights group, tweeted that “we are immensely saddened by the news of the passing of George Bizos. A towering giant in so many facets of our liberation struggle.”
Soft-spoken, with a wave of white hair in his later years, Bizos remained a formidable force into his 80s and maintained an office in Johannesburg lined with pictures of himself and Mandela.
Bizos successfully led a team of lawyers that toppled the death penalty in South Africa in 1995 and held a range of appointments including a spot on the country’s Judicial Services Commission.
In 2014, he grilled police witnesses during an inquiry into the killing of 34 striking workers at the Marikana platinum mine in South Africa. He compared the Marikana massacre to the brutalities of apartheid.
The death of the lawyer on Wednesday left many people in South Africa and around the world to grieve. Bizos’ wife, Rita Daflos, died in 2017. He is survived by his three sons and seven grandchildren.
“Tonight we bow our heads in anguish,” tweeted Ayanda Dlodlo, the minister for state security in South Africa. “One of the brightest lights in our Country has gone out.”
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