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George Bizos: Odyssey to freedom

17 July 2007

I’ve just finished reading George Bizos’s autobiography, Odyssey to freedom.

Actually it’s not so much an autobiography as a record of his court cases. Apart from the first hundred pages, which deal with his boyhood in Greece, and escape from the German occupation in a leaky boat with his father and seven New Zealand soldiers, most of the book deals with the cases he handled as one of the leading human rights lawyers in South Africa. In that part the autobiographical segments are short notes at the end of each section. Most of the book is one courtroom drama after another.

About halfway through reading the book I went to see the film Pan’s Labyrinth, where the brutality of Franco’s fascist Spain threw much light on what was happening in South Africa a couple of decades later. Reading the 600 densely-packed pages of Bizos’s book reminds one of the growing despair of the descent into hell.

In the earlier cases one is struck by the ludicrousness of apartheid, and it almost seems like a farce, that people could possibly take such a ridiculous system seriously. Yet take it seriously they did, and its supporters were prepared to defend it to the death — the death of those who opposed it, preferably, like Steve Biko. So the story gets darker as South Africa descends into fascism, with the security forces prepared to lie, torture and kill to get their own way, and judges prepared to believe them in spite of the evidence.

We know how the story ends now, that the descent into hell was reversed, and freedom and democracy came to South Africa. And at that point the comparison with Pan’s Labyrinth ends, for there the would-be liberators prove as brutal as the oppressors, One of the accused defended by Bizos at the Delmas trial was Popo Molefe, for whom the State wanted the death penalty. Bizos writes:

There is a postscript. Some years later, after the change in government, Popo Molefe took office as the premier of the North West Province. He hosted an inaugural party at the football stadium in the provincial capital and invited members of the legal team, along with Judge van Dijkhorst. The judge accepted his invitation and we sat at adjoining tables. In a nice touch of irony, the judge, Arthur Chaskalson and I were asked to speak after Premier Molefe had welcomed the multitude in which he appealed for reconciliation among the adversaries of the past (Bizos 2007:469)

But the sting is in the tail.

Bizos describes the establishment of the Constitutional Court, and one of the first things it was called upon to adjudicate was whether capital punishment was constitutional. The court decided that it was not, and Bizos reproduces many of the arguments of the judges. Bizos also notes that in the first seven months of National Party rule there were more executions than there had been in the entire history of the Union of South Africa from 1910 until 1948. The NP began as it meant to continue, as a bloody and bloodthirsty regime. Arthur Chaskalson, the president of the Constitutional Court, marked the change when he said:

The right to life and dignity are the most important of all human rights and the source of all other personal rights in Chapter Three [of the Constitution]. By committing ourselves to a society founded on the recognition of human rights we are required to value these two rights above all others. And this must be demonstrated by the State in everything it does,including the way it punishes criminals.

This view was echoed by the other judges, many of whom appealed to the concept of ubuntu. It was, of course, ubuntu that led to Premier Popo Molefe’s invitation to the judge who had presided at his trial for treason. So Judge Albie Sachs wrote:

The unqualified statement that ‘every person has the right to life’, in effect outlaws capital punishment. Instead of establishing a constitutional framework in which the State may deprive citizens of their lives, as it could have done, our constitution commits the state to affirming and protecting life.

The irony is that most of the arguments used by the learned judges about the “right to life” apply equally to abortion, and yet there have been more abortions since the inauguration of the constitution than there were executions in the 46 years that the National Party regime lasted.

And the second sting in the tail is that more recently George Bizos was called upon to defend Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition in Zimbabwe, on a charge of treason. And the sad thing is that the charge, and the behaviour of the prosecution and the police, was no different from the way the prosecution and the police behaved in the worst part of the apartheid period. Yet the ANC, which opposed these kinds of excesses during the apartheid period, now not only fails to raise a critical voice itself, above a whisper, but is louder in its criticism of those who criticise these excesses.

History has shown that it is all to easy for liberators to become oppressors, and perhaps the first step down the slippery slope is when the voices crying out against oppression are muted.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 July 2007 10:01 am

    Thats a very interesting group of thoughts Steve. Part book review, part histroy, part current affiars, part celeb story. It makes me feel a little out of touch, because my obsession of late has been theological.

    Now this all connects, and by communicating we make it do so, but where I see the intersection is between the theology of Inclusion and Law and punishment. I’m trying to debate this on my blog at the moment, (actually Inclusion, Incarnation and Hell) and your thought would be very welcomed.

    But yes, good comment on Bizos, Spain, and current trends… keep it up.

  2. 18 July 2007 12:33 pm

    I, too, am confounded by the consistency of a logic that favours abortion on the one hand and outlaws capital punishment. I’d value just one argument or article that would demonstrate that consistency.

  3. 18 July 2007 6:07 pm


    Or vice versa — favouring capital punishment and outlawing abortion.

    The learned judges don’t seem to be listening to what they themselves have said in interpreting the constitution.

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