George Bizos, an anti-apartheid icon and renowned human rights lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela on treason charges for which he escaped the death penalty, died on Wednesday aged 92.
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the rights lawyer’s passing during an online media briefing.
“This is very sad for our country,” he said.
Bizos died of natural causes at his Johannesburg, his family said in a statement.
The celebrated lawyer represented Mandela during the Rivonia Trial which saw Mandela and seven others sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 on charges of seeking to overthrow the racist apartheid government.
Many had expected the death penalty.
Ramaphosa described Bizos as one of the lawyers who “contributed immensely to the attainment of our democracy”.
“He had an incisive legal mind and was one of the architects of our constitution,” the president said.
Bizos arrived in South Africa as a 13-year-old war refugee from Greece and became one of its most respected lawyers.
In a long career dedicated to defending democratic values and human rights, the soft-spoken Bizos represented a series of activists against the white minority regime and later helped to finalise the constitution of post-apartheid South Africa.
A beloved national figure, he continued working into his late 80s. One of his last major trials secured government payouts in 2014 for families of 34 miners shot dead by police at Marikana northwest of Johannesburg two years earlier.
– Defending Mandela –
Bizos was in his mid-thirties when he was chosen in 1963 to join a team of advocates that represented Mandela and other leading activists in one of the most important political trials in the history of South Africa.
Although a junior member of the defence team, Bizos was credited with the tactic of proposing that Mandela deliver a statement from the dock to present the group’s cause, rather than submit him to cross-examination.
The speech was electrifying, notably Mandela’s often-cited lines on his hope for democracy: “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.”
Bizos would say later that he advised Mandela to avoid challenging the court over the possibility of a death sentence by adding the tempering words “if needs be”.
In his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” (1994), Mandela describes the advocate as a lifelong friend and “a man who combined a sympathetic nature with an incisive mind”.
Bizos continued to represent Mandela throughout his 27-year jail term and also acted for his then wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, on more than 20 occasions.