Why Bizos’ fight for 37 Namibian heroes deserves honour

IN his memoirs, the late anti-apartheid campaigner and human rights lawyer, George Bizos recalled the trial of 37 Namibians in Pretoria, reminiscent of the treason and Rivonia trials.
Bizos who defended Nelson Mandela during the decades-long struggle for South Africa’s democracy should be remembered and celebrated by Namibia for his role in representing liberation stalwarts such as Andimba Herman Toivo ya Toivo, Eliaser Tuhadeleni, Jason Daniel Mutumbulwa, John ya Otto and Nathaniel Maxuilili in Pretoria.
Although Ya Toivo was unsuccessful in his bid for freedom in the Pretoria trial and got a 20-year sentence, Bizos, who died aged 92 last week, could be regarded as one of the instrumental men in the struggle faced by not only Ya Toivo but other Namibians in their Pretoria trial.
Bizos recalled that there were other similarities between the Namibians’ case with that of Mandela. The accused were tried in the same Old Synagogue where Mandela and others sat for almost three years, charged with treason. The security arrangements were elaborate as they had been for Rivonia Trial.
“A small corrugated iron structure was erected to serve as a cell. It was not big enough for a single table or chair to use for consultations. We insisted on our clients being brought to court as early as possible so we could consult before proceedings started. Senior correspondents from the media and observers from universities and human rights organisations vied for the few available seats in a building whose acoustic was designed for the rabbi, the cantor and the choir, not for lawyers”.
In his memoirs titled ‘Odyssey to Freedom’, Bizos shared the struggle of Ya Toivo and the efforts he put in averting the death penalty for Ya Toivo coupled with the release of other Swapo members who were being charged with terrorism between 1961 and 1971.
We recall how Bizos stood firm with the chairman of the internal wing of Swapo, Immanuel Gottlieb, Nathaniel Muxuilili and two teachers who were on the executive who could not understand why they were being charged with terrorism by the apartheid regime. We also recall how, despite fears that Ya Toivo had been permanently affected by the physical and mental torture he had undergone in detention, paved way for Ya Toivo to give a moving statement in his trial which eventually led to the amendment of the Criminal Procedure Act which deprived an accused of the right to speak from the dock.
“We decided that Ya Toivo would follow the example of Nelson Mandela and read a statement from the dock, speaking not only for himself but also for his co-accused and the Namibian people. He insisted in answering the judge’s criticisms of him in strong terms, even though we warned that his sentence was likely to be increased. He didn’t care; he was going to have his say. After he had read the first two paragraphs about being tried in a foreign country, the judge interrupted him saying that it was his duty to judge them. Ya Toivo ignored this and continued,” a moving memoir by Bizos reflects, reminding us of the power he gave Namibians in that instance to be heard despite the highly oppressive environment.
As the consummate trial lawyer that he was, there is no doubt that Bizos had an instinctive gift for reading people and connecting with them. At the heart of this was his empathy. When he led his own clients as witnesses, his heart was with them as they shared their stories. When he cross-examined police who had imprisoned, tortured or killed, his questions were aflame, demanding truth and simple human justice for that freedom fighter, activist or striking miner, and for their families.
Though he was a master of the rules of evidence and courtroom craft, this was never what it was about for him. While theatrical at times, he was by no means a showman. The theatre of the courtroom was necessary because courts were the only places where the police – endowed with limitless powers by the state – could be made to answer, squirm and confess. Bizos used this space, determinedly.
Bizos stood against injustice and oppression despite the personal and professional consequences for him. This selfless sacrifice that he shared with the Namibian people will remain a treasure and his Namibian legacy.
Hamba kahle George Bizos