The loss of George Bizos is a hard blow for the Nelson Mandela Foundation. We got to know him first as a close friend of Nelson Mandela and over more than twenty years came to regard him as a friend and trusted adviser to the organisation. Another giant of South African history and of global struggles for justice has fallen. Our thoughts are with his family, comrades and associates at this difficult time.
“Ntate Bizos was always available to support our events and to lend an ear to our challenges,” Foundation Chief Executive Sello Hatang said. “He became like a well-loved uncle to us. We were in awe of him, yet he always engaged us with humility, affection, and respect.”
The friendship between him and Mandela spanned more than seven decades and was legendary. In the last years of Mandela’s life, they were often to be found together, just catching up, sharing memories, or heading off on car rides to see, one more time, places of significance in their life journeys. Whenever he was asked to talk about Bizos, Mandela turned to words of gratitude. As he once said: “I don’t think words can sufficiently express our indebtedness to men and women like George Bizos.”
The two of them had met as law students at the University of the Witwatersrand soon after Mandela arrived in Johannesburg from the Eastern Cape in 1941. While Mandela did not finish his degree then, he practiced as an attorney while becoming an activist in ANC and other structures. Bizos went on to become an advocate, and Mandela would often brief him in cases he was defending. As the anti-apartheid struggle intensified through the 1950s, Bizos was often called upon to defend Mandela in court. And in the 1963-4 Rivonia Trial, Bizos was a member of the defence team. “He was really devoted to the cause,” Mandela said of Bizos. “When he appeared for us, he did not do so as a man who is appearing for strangers, he did so as his contribution to a great cause to which we were all committed.”
Bizos played a critical role through the years of Mandela’s incarceration, both professionally and as a family friend. Speaking a couple of years after his release from prison, Mandela said that Bizos had “behaved like a brother” to him while he was in jail. “He looked after my family, after my children, advised my children and he made me feel that although I'm in prison, my affairs are being looked after by a man I know and I trust.” Bizos was also a vital conduit of information between Mandela and the external ANC leadership.
“At a moment like this,” Hatang said, “we remember Madiba and a whole generation of South Africans who endured much and achieved more. We owe it to them to keep walking that long walk to freedom."