A tribute to George Bizos
Today, a giant fell.
When I learned of the news of George Bizos's passing, my heart—like many across South Africa, I'm sure—sank. Bizos is a legend for a reason. I wasn't planning on sharing any reflections about Bizos or our encounters, because others, with longer, deeper, intimate knowledge of him, are far better placed.
But then, I was texting a friend, who's in her late 20s, about why Bizos's passing has hit me particularly hard in a moment when there seems to be so much loss. As I shared my experiences of Bizos with her, her responses were, "Oh for real?" "Wow." " I didn't realize." And because of that, I thought to share a few of my reflections and how I encountered Bizos' legacy. I think his work is particularly important now when many of us are trying to figure out what it means to be an ally. Whether we're trying to support people across the color line meaningfully, as Bizos so obviously was, or across gender, sexual, or other identities, perhaps his life and work can provide a bit of information and inspiration.
I first met Bizos in 2007, very appropriately, at the opening of the Steve Biko Center for Bioethics. I was still new to South Africa, having arrived only a few months before, and I was relatively new to my position at the Steve Biko Foundation, an institution dedicated to the late anti-apartheid activist's legacy.
Biko was the leader of South Africa's Black Consciousness Movement. In 1977 he was arrested and while in custody, assaulted. Despite being brutalized by the police, Biko was denied medical care for 11 days. On September 11th, he was driven over 1,000 kilometers, naked and shackled in the back of a police van from what is today Port Elizabeth, to Pretoria, where he died alone on the floor of a cell in Pretoria Central Maximum Security Prison on September 12th, 1977.
Why do I take the time to recount the story of Biko's murder in a tribute to Bizos? One, becuase it is striking to me that Bizos transitioned just three days before the anniversary of Biko's passing; but more than that, because without Bizos's work, to this day, we might not have a full record of what happened in police room 619 and Biko's subsequent death. Despite the violence visible on Biko's body, the official police line was that he died due to a hunger strike.
Together with a legal team made up of Sydney Kentridge, Shun Chetty, and Ernie Wentz, Bizos represented the Biko family at the inquest into the activist's murder. Despite the meticulous recreation of the events leading up to Biko's death by pathologist Jonathan Gluckman, the inquest's official finding into Biko's death was that "there was no one to blame."
It was thirty years later that I met Bizos at the opening of the Steve Biko Center for Bioethics at Wits University. It is an institution created to train medical professionals to honor the Hippocratic Oath and adhere to the highest ethical standards, which the doctors in Biko's case did not do.
In the years between the inquest and my meeting Bizos, he continued to press for justice in Biko's death. Notably, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where the police implicated in Biko's murder were denied amnesty for not disclosing the full truth (although they were never prosecuted for their crimes against him).
In 2011, Bizos was front row in Cape Town when Sydney Kentridge gave the 12th Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture. But more than being in attendance, Bizos was patient as I interviewed him and Kentridge for the Foundation's archive. They shared every detail of their involvement in Biko's case and nuanced perspectives to ensure that the circumstances surrounding Biko's detention, torture, and death were preserved for future generations (circumstances which are too often echoed in contemporary police brutality).
In 2014 Bizos again stood with the Biko family, the Steve Biko Foundation, and Ahmed Timol's family when Clive and Maureen Steele attempted to auction the autopsy reports of Biko and Timol, activists who were both killed in police custody.
What I have recounted here is a fraction of Bizos' support of Biko's legacy. But what is more remarkable is that it is but a fraction of the work Bizos did in his lifetime. From the Rivonia Trial, to the Craddock Four, to Chris Hani, to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, to the Marikana miners, and beyond, for decades Bizos used his time and talent in service of the struggle. His life and work is indelibly etched into the history of contemporary South Africa.
Despite his towering stature and immeasurable legacy, Bizos was always clothed in his trademark humility, grace, and killer intellect. But more than that, he was a person who cared. He cared about the major human rights issues of the day, but he also cared about whether an immigrant from Ghana was settling into South Africa well and finding her place, as he, an immigrant from Greece, had done long ago.
As Bizos makes his final journey to the realm of the ancestors, I have no doubt that he will find his place among the greats.
Hamba Kahle sir, hamba kahle.