Monday, 26 March 2012

201 Days with Bizos (Part I): An Emphatic Yes

As I enter the elevator, I see him.

"Hello", he says.


"You are new here."

"Yes. I've seen your photograph all around the office Mr. Bizos." That's what I say.

"I am going for lunch now. Please come see me this afternoon. We'll have a chat."

I nod obediently.
This was my first encounter with George Bizos, internationally renowned human rights advocate. Born in 1923 to the son of the mayor of a small village in the south of Greece, when he was 13-years-old, he accompanied his father who helped seven New Zealand soldiers hiding in the hills near his village to escape Nazi-occupied Greece. Their boat, originally destined for Crete, caught the attention of a British battleship, which took them to Alexandria, Egypt. From there, he tells me, as refugees, they were given a choice: India or South Africa. He father chose South Africa. After landing in Durban, they made their way to Johannesburg. George did not go to school and instead worked in a small shop. One day, when he was 16, a young teacher in a nearby school asked him where he was going to school. When he told her he wasn't, she took him to her school and began teaching him privately as well. By 1948, the young boy who could not speak English or Afrikaans just a few years earlier was admitted into the law faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand. It was there that he met Nelson Mandela.
I step into his office. 
"Tell me about yourself."
I humbly recite my short professional and academic history to which he replies, "Very impressive........ I met Trudeau, you know."
He then proceeds to tell me about Trudeau's visit to South Africa and his compliments to George and the other drafters of the South African Constitution. You see, George was on the African National Congress' (ANC) Legal and Constitutional Committee and was an advisor at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) where he helped write the South African Constitution.
"Would you like to help me with a speech I am giving next week at the London School of Economics?"
I give an emphatic yes.
After graduating from law school, George's chances of joining the Johannesburg bar as a foreigner, even though he was white, were slim. After a few years as an attorney, he distinguished himself and was finally accepted into the Johannesburg Bar in 1954. He has been practicing for nearly 60 years. During his illustrious career as a human rights advocate, he acted for dozens of well known figures and thousands of political prisoners during apartheid. At the Rivonia Trial, he was part of the team that defended Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu. Nelson Mandela wrote the Foreward to George's memoires.
The following morning, George comes to my office, sits down and asks if I have a few minutes. I give an emphatic yes (the 'emphatic yes' becomes a fixture in my conversations with George). He sits and begins telling me the stories he would like to include in his speech. The topic is "Hellenism, Human Rights and Apartheid". I wonder how he is going to fit the topic of hellenism, which is effectively Greek culture, with the topics of human rights and apartheid. He brilliantly and effortelessly weaves a speech about Greek history and the origin of human rights, of the modern day universality of human rights and of his experiences during apartheid. We laugh often. We cry less. But we do cry. I realize that I am listening to a walking, living, breathing history book. If there were a movie, there would be a piano playing in the background with a montage of the two of us together. 
After finishing dictating his speech to me, he says, "Okay. That's enough. There always comes a point when you have to turn off the tap. See what you can do with what I've given you."
How do you edit a legend? As little as you can. As much as you can. As best you can. I spend a few days working with his thoughts and words. When I finish, I take the finished product to him and sit holding my breath as he reads each page carefully, breathing a sigh of relief each time he moves on to the next page. We finish the speech and it is a big hit in London.
Upon his return, he asks me if I would like to help him with another speech.
I give an emphatic yes.

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