Monday, 26 March 2012

201 Days with Bizos (Part II): Please touch my blood.

After the success of his speech in London, one day, George kindly takes me out for lunch.  We go to his one and only lunch spot, Bocaccio's, a small restaurant owned by a Greek family just a five minute walk from the office outside of Gandhi Square in downtown Johannesburg.  

The five minute walk takes 20.  

We are stopped more than a dozen times by South Africans wanting to thank him and wish him well.  Out of respect, most will not approach him directly, but rather ask me, "Sorry, is this Bizos?"  When I reply that it is, they loudly exclaim, "Mr Bizos!  Please touch my blood!"  The expression is simply a heartfelt way of indicating trust, admiration and friendship.  

One young man starts jumping up and down exclaiming to his friends, "Gents, do you know who this is!  This is Mandela's lawyer!"  A street cleaner sweeps the sidewalk in front of him and says, "It is an honour for me to have you walk on my pavement, Sir."  One elderly woman begins to cry when he shakes her hand and says she cannot wait to go home and tell her entire family that she met "Bizos".  This becomes a regular part of our weekly lunches. 

When we return to the office, he begins to tell me about his next speech. 

"I am being honoured by the University of Pretoria with an honorary doctorate."

"That's wonderful! Congratulations! It can't be your first, can it? 

"No. I believe it is my 12th." 

Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Bizos and I begin to brainstorm ideas for his speech.  He settles on "Don't Blame the Constitution", a theme he has been building on for quite some time in response to increased critiques about what the Constitution has accomplished (or not accomplished, say the critics) post-apartheid.  

Over the course of the weeks that follow, however, we read about a newly emerging target for criticism: the Constitutional Court.  Many politicians and government employees are challenging the Court's power, implying that the Court is over-stepping its boundaries in declaring laws unconstitutional, and announcing the establishment of an assessment body to review the decisions of the Court.  A number of well known former judges, academics and top advocates in the country give speeches defending the Court and George wishes to join them.  

"Joseph, we are changing the title of the speech.  It will now be 'Blame Neither the Constitution Nor the Courts'." 

George's contribution to the dialogue is one only he can make.  At age 83, he has an incredible historical knowledge of the law in South Africa.  He describes the history of the judiciary in South Africa, how there was a time when apartheid era President Kruger described the right of courts to test policy as "a principle of the Devil", and how the apartheid regime at one point established a review body to overturn the decisions of the highest court in the country.  His words are powerful: "These are also two examples of how the apartheid regime responded when it was unhappy with the judiciary.  I hope that our current ruling party does not intend to follow either the regime's example or that of President Kruger." 

I don't know if it's possible to listen hard. But every moment I spend with George, I listen hard. When he speaks, I rarely ask questions for fear of interrupting his train of thought. It is a lesson in patience and humility. More than that, every moment spent with George is a lesson in life from a life well lived.

The speech receives wide media attention all across the country and is cited in many other speeches defending the judiciary that follow, including one made by the first ever Chief Justice of South Africa, Arthur Chaskalson.  (More on him later.)     

I finish here with some of the closing remarks from George's speech: 

The resilience of the human spirit is a powerful thing.  I have always been touched by the innate goodness, incredible generosity and unyielding courage of the human spirit, particularly of those who suffer most.  It is not only well known leaders whom I admire, but also the women in rural areas who burned their passes, the children who refused to attend school on the first day Bantu education came into being, the men who challenged their banning orders, the men and women who were detained without trial, the family members whose sons and daughters were executed, and many others.  

They are responsible for my optimism. It is why I defended hundreds of political prisoners during apartheid despite repeated threats from the regime. It is why, at the age of 83, I continue to practice law. It is why I am so honoured to be with all of you here today: to spread the message and to see your young faces full of hope and optimism. Please do not lose that.
He cannot read this last part without crying.  You begin to understand why the entire country calls him "Uncle George".

1 comment:

  1. Outstanding, Joseph. Thanks for sharing. George Bizos is a remarkable man from whom we all benefit greatly when we listen hard.