AJS Legal History Part 2

The stories worth telling…

In Part I we started our series off with Bram Fischer – a legal professional who (on the face of it at least) did not start off as the man he will be remembered as – a man who literally dedicated his life to see justice done for those who could not attain it. It’s funny how our beginnings do not always seal our fate. Thankfully.

We remembered Oliver Tambo and his contribution both to education, law, and the ANC – a man who seemed to never be satisfied with just the mediocre he continued to excel and accomplish throughout his life. He soared to heights that no one – at the time – could have imagined. And the world is so much richer for it. 

Our journey continues as we look at the legend Sir Sydney Kentridge and world-icon George Bizos. Again, this article may not be a short read, but we promise you it will be a worthwhile one.

Because these are the stories worth telling…. 

Sir Sydney Kentridge

A man who devoted his life to the practice of justice.

Sir Sydney Kentridge was born in Johannesburg in 1922, to a family that he describes as not “Orthodox, but a traditional Jewish family”. 

He matriculated in 1938 at the King Edward VII High School and obtained his BA degree at Wits in 1941. As a lot of men during that time did, Kentridge served with the South African forces in World War II for 4 years. After he completed his service, he went on to attend Exeter College in Oxford on an ex-serviceman’s grant. He excelled (obviously) in jurisprudence in which he received first class honours. 

He was made an Honorary Fellow of Exeter College and in 1949, Kentridge was admitted to the Johannesburg Bar. In 1965, he was made silk and was appointed Senior Counsel. Kentridge was then appointed chairperson of the Johannesburg Bar Council from 1972 to 1973. Five years later, in 1977, he was called to the English Bar. In 1984, he was appointed Queen’s Counsel and served as an Appeal Judge in Jersey and Guernsey. 

Kentridge had become a very senior and internationally respected jurist and was honoured by the United Kingdom as Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George for services to international law. He was also elected as Bencher of the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn in 1986. A huge honour. 

Now that all sounds extremely impressive – and it undoubtedly is – but what really makes Kentridge stand out is his involvement in notable political trials in South Africa. Kentridge together with Israel “Isie” Maisels and Bram Fischer became leading lawyers for the defence in political trials in South Africa such as the Treason Trial (1958 – 1961) and the newspaper Prisons Trial (1968 – 1969). Kentridge was also part of Mandela’s legal team during his 27-year imprisonment.

In 1978, Kentridge took on the pivotal inquest into the brutal killing of the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, Steve Biko while in police detention. Kentridge was instrumental in exposing the circumstances of Biko’s death, finally seeing justice being done. Kentridge has  this to say about the trial – 

“We proved that the police account of how he met his injuries was false. Our case was that he had been assaulted by police, and that he was dying when sent to Pretoria overnight.”

That same year, Kentridge became one of the founding trustees of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), a human rights organisation based in Johannesburg, together with former Justice Arthur Chaskalson (to be discussed) as a result largely of the creative initiative of his wife, Felicia, an advocate, herself. 

Kentridge refused to accept an appointment to the bench under the Apartheid government and instead served as a judge of the Appeal Court in Botswana.

When apartheid collapsed, Kentridge sat on the new South African Constitutional Court bench from 1995 – 1996 where he sought to use the law to eradicate – or at least try to – the grave injustices of Apartheid and alleviate its massive socio-economic inequalities.

Kentridge has also been a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, and has received honorary law degrees from the universities of Leicester, London, and Sussex in England; from Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal and from Seton Hall in the United States. To top it all off, Kentridge was also a faculty member of the Salzburg Seminar Session 184; American Law and Legal Institutions (1978); and Session 349, Recent Developments in American Law and Legal Institutions (1997). 

In 2008, the South African Government conferred the Order of the Baobab in Gold (for exceptional service) to Kentridge for his immense contribution to the fight against unjust apartheid laws and embracing the vision of a non-racial, non-sexist, free and democratic society.

To mark his considerable contributions to the legal system within South Africa, the South African General Council of the Bar, in recognising contributions to law and justice in South Africa, annually awards the Sydney and Felicia Kentridge Award to deserving lawyers for their service to the law.

As set out by The Presidency – 

“Sir Sydney Kentridge stands out for his considerable contribution as a renowned jurist to the eradication of an abhorrent system that set humanity apart on the basis of race. He rose above the confines of apartheid dogma to embrace a vision of a non-racial, non-sexist, free, just and democratic society defined by peace, unity and human solidarity.”

Of the political trials, most notably (in this case) the treason trials, Kentridge had this to say – 

“All the accused were simply acquitted. Of course, I and the other members of the defence team felt elated about it. It was the most political of trials in a highly politicised country, but it showed that the judiciary was still completely independent. It was a great day for the South African justice system.”

(Sources we used and to whom we owe thanks: The Jewish Report here and here, The Presidency, The Guardian and South African History Online). 

George Bizos

A giant of South African history, of global struggles and justice, and champion of human rights.

Bizos was born in 1927 in the small village of Vasilitsi, south of Koroni and Kalamata on the Messenia peninsula of the Peloponnese in Greece, where his father – Antonios “Antoni” Bizos was the mayor.

During the Nazi occupation of his home country during WWII and in 1941, 7 allied soldiers from New Zealand were being sheltered in his hometown. But the Bizos family was warned that there might be punishments in store for his father, who was the mayor and responsible for sheltering the soldiers. His father arranged for someone to get a permit to take a boat out of the harbour, and with the soldiers Bizos and his father set out for Crete (still under Allied rule) – at just 13 years old. Bizos’s mother remained in Greece and only arrived in South Africa some 20 years later.

Adrift at sea in a boat, they were picked up in Crete. From there they were then taken to a refugee camp in Alexandria, Egypt (they stayed there for about 2 months). His father was housed in a camp at the sports club on Gezira island in Cairo, and the young Bizos was sent to stay at a Greek orphanage in Alexandria (for about 1 month). As refugees were being moved out from Alexandria, with single people being sent to India and families being sent to South Africa, the Bizos family went by train to Suez and travelled on the Ile de France to Durban in 1941, later moving to Johannesburg where they settled. 

Bizos’s life – at the age of only 13 – had already started as a champion of those less fortunate.  And that role did not change until his dying day. 

Bizos enrolled to study law at Wits in Johannesburg, graduating in 1950. He also served on the Student Representative Council (SRC) together with (among other students) Lionel Forman and the then president of the SRC, Harold Wolpe. Wits described Bizos as one of its greatest alumni, adding that – 

“We remember him as a man of courage who always sided with the truth and who spent his lifetime fighting injustice and prejudice.”

Due to Bizos’s associations with both Forman and Wolpe as well as his political beliefs (and activism) while still a student, his South African citizenship was denied in a letter that described him as ‘not fit and proper to become a South African’. The ban lasted for over 30 years – 

“There comes a time in the life of all people when you either succumb or you fight.” 

Bizos was admitted to the Johannesburg Bar in 1954 where he served as an Advocate until 1990 when he worked as a counsel to 40 lawyers at the Legal Resources Centre and the Constitutional Litigation Unit.

Throughout the 1950s, donned in his lawyer’s black robes and starched white bib, Bizos honed his skills in remote rural courthouses, where the apartheid authorities sought to deploy apartheid law against little-known offenders. This was long before the (now famous) trials that cemented his legal reputation.

During Bizos’s illustrious career he advised Father Trevor Huddleston, the anti-apartheid Anglican missionary. He also defended the leaders of the ANC and allied organisations, among them Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, during the treason trial that ran from 1956 to 1961 (together with both Bram Fischer and Sir Sydney Kentridge). 

Bizos together with Bram Fischer and former Justice Arthur Chaskalson, defended Mandela, Sisulu and eight others who were charged with sabotage in the Rivonia trials . But it was Bizos that met with Mandela in a dark cell reserved for those about to appear in court. According to South African History Online, “Bizos shared his opinion with Mandela:

I said you know this last paragraph, the one that declares that you are prepared to die, it may become counterproductive. I don’t think that the occasion is appropriate to say, in an unqualified way, that you are prepared to die. You will be accused of challenging the authority, you will be accused of seeking martyrdom.

Mandela resisted the advice. He was determined to voice his conviction before the court. Bizos offered an alternative, “Add the words ‘if needs be’ before the words ‘I am prepared to die’.”

And that has become a world famous quote known by people all over the world and reads as follows – 

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself 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 live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Again, according to South African History Online – 

“The relationship (between Bizos and Mandela) developed into a personal one which endured over the years while Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island and continued until Mandela passed away in 2013.

Nelson Mandela says of Bizos in his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: “George, the child of Greek immigrants, was a man who combined a sympathetic nature with an incisive mind.”

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 achievements and the matters he undertook are vast. Incredible in fact. So, we will try list them succinctly (but still respectfully) as follows – 

Ø  Bizos joined the Legal Resource Centre in 1991, using the centre as a base in key litigation including leading the team for the government in passing the Constitution in 1996, representing families of apartheid atrocities at the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Here he represented the families of Steven Bantu Biko and Chris Hani as well as the so-called  Cradock Four — Matthew GoniweFort CalataSparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlawuli –  the four men who on 27 June 1985, on their way back to Cradock from Port Elizabeth, were arrested at a roadblock set by the Security Branch, assaulted, and murdered.

Ø  Bizos also appeared in numerous inquests into deaths in detention during apartheid, including those of Dr Neil AggettAhmed Timol and Steven Bantu Biko (together with Sir Sidney Kentridge).

Ø  Bizos lead the LRC team from 2012 to 2015 appearing for some of the mine workers’ families at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry into the police killing of 34 mine workers on 16 August 2012.

Ø  In 2003 Bizos represented Morgan Tsvangirai, president of the main opposition party (Movement for Democratic Change – MDC) in Zimbabwe, who was charged with high treason by the Zimbabwean government.

Besides his role as Advocate, Bizos held many other appointments including serving on the Judicial Services Commission (1994 – 2009), an Acting Judge in the High Court of South Africa, and a Judge on the Appeal Court in Botswana, to name a few. He was the recipient of numerous Honorary Doctorates, and national and international awards. Notably, he was awarded an Order for Meritorious Service Medal by the then President Nelson Mandela in 1999. 

He also played an instrumental role in the negotiations for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and together with Arthur Chaskalson and others, assisted in the drafting of our democratic constitution, which he then defended vigorously.

Bizos was a lifelong campaigner against the use of the death penalty, and led the team that successfully acted for the Government arguing that the death penalty was unconstitutional.

Bizos worked tirelessly and throughout his life to “seek justice for victims of injustice”

His illustrious career ended on 9 September 2020 when he passed away at his home in Johannesburg

“More than ever we, we need an active citizenry to challenge the status quo and hold those with power to account”.

(Sources we used and to whom we owe thanks: The Conversation; South African History Online; the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the New York Times. While not used as a source, we do recommend reading this – 21 Icons).

AJS  – as always – expresses its undying admiration for the legal profession, which it loyally and respectfully serves. South Africa has an extremely rich legal history whose members fought on the right side of law, human rights, and history. 

In Part III of this series, we will be looking at legal stalwarts like Justice Arthur Chaskalson, Justice Edwin Cameron, the father of our democracy – Mandela as well as Israel Maisel, Ruth Hayman Lazar and former Chief Justice Pious Langa. We do hope you will join us as we pay tribute to these legal heroes. 

Because they so richly deserve the recognition. 


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