Interview: George Bizos, Nelson Mandela's Lawyer During His Trial and Prison Years

Interview: George Bizos, Nelson Mandela's Lawyer During His Trial and Prison Years

Release Date

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


The following is an interview conducted by John Carlin withGeorge Bizos. George was Mandela's lawyer during his trial and prison years locked away on Robben Island. George was Mandela's lifelong friend, and a constant visitor throughout the prison years. Read the full interview on MNI Alive republished with permission:

Why were Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki and company perceived to be so dangerous by the state?
Well, the South African state, being an oligarchy, was concerned about its safety. They knew that the vast majority of the oppressed people were against them. They, themselves, created the myth that the ... African population in the country were happy with their lot, they were docile. And the Defiance Campaign, the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955, going over to symbolic attacks against the symbols of apartheid at the end of 1961, was something that they couldn't deal with. They furthered the myth that had it not been for agitators ... all would be well in South Africa. Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Kathrada and others became symbols of resistance. In referring to them as terrorists, they wanted to equate them as an unrepresentative band of self appointed leaders, to be equated with the gang in Germany, the Red Brigade in Italy, and the unbridled terrorism that was indulged in by the Palestinians.

They were afraid--and the future proved that they were correctly afraid--that these were men who made an impact in the world. First of all, because their acts of violence, their sabotage, were controlled. And insofar as they may have been isolated loss of life, it was not directly done against people, but rather incidental to the attack on the symbol of apartheid. Of course, unlike them, there were vast numbers of people throughout the world that didn't buy their propaganda--that this was a mere gang, that they were not representative leaders. And they could not understand that the world saw them as freedom fighters, fighting a just cause. And way back in 1948, when India became independent, you had resolutions with the United Nations condemning them. So there were these combination of factors which brought the matter to the fore.

When they were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, the then Captain van Wyk, the man who was a lieutenant when he arrested some of them at Rivonia, and he saw the world reaction, the diplomatic reaction in the country, he said with some resignation to me privately, "Here we are Mr. Bizos, we arrest these people, we convict them and the world is not against them. The world is against us. What are we doing?"

To what degree, if at all, would the pressure of the world have had an impact on the outcome of the trial?
I have a view on why, probably, no death sentence was imposed, and the role of the international community in relation to that. They were due to come to trial in October. The U.N. passed the resolution almost unanimously ... calling for their release. The apartheid government was absolutely amazed that here they thought that these arrests and the disclosures of the documents that were found, would bury these agitators. You have the U.N. say[ing] release them. Had we not attacked the indictment, and had we not gained time, until the following year (the trial finished only in the middle of 1964), had the trial taken place in October/November and finished in 1963, I am fairly certain that there would have been a death sentence. Very often, when there are conflicts of this nature, time helps. But in this particular case, I think it was absolutely vital, when you have the world organization calling for their release. And also however cautious some of the countries, the major powers, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France may have been, the ambassador talking to the government and the first secretary talking to the ANC to sort of keep their options open, they were concerned about this. And I am sure that they expressed their views to the Verwoerd government. But I don't think that he was a man that would have heeded that call at the end of 1963. I am sure that the judge will have said that it was his own decision. But I am one of those who believes that judges don't live in a vacuum.

Why was the decision taken not to have Nelson Mandela ...
There were a number of reasons. Firstly, he was not free when the main allegations against them were made--the adoption of Operation Mayibuye in order to train troops and go on to guerrilla warfare--he was in prison. Secondly, he had had contact with heads of state, and had made arrangements, both for financial [and] material support--the housing and training of people that went out for military training. It would have been embarrassing to have the prosecutor put to him, "You met president so and so, and in Africa you met prime minister so and so, and so and so in Europe..." This would have been embarrassing. Thirdly, to make a statement such as he did, an apologia in the true sense of the word, not asking to be forgiven, but rather justifying his actions, can be more easily put across as an uninterrupted statement from the dock [in court] and not giving the prosecutor the opportunity to cross examine him and interrupt the process--foul the waters, if you like.

That speech from the dock (read the full speech)--Mandela wrote it, as we understand--it was decided to add three little words, that he himself did not have there originally.
Yes, well in the first draft of Mandela's statement, he had said that he was prepared to die for the society that he had fought for. When I saw them I thought that they may be interpreted as an invitation to do it, and they may be viewed as a challenge. I raised this with him, and he said, "Well, I'm going to say it." I said, "Well, could you add the words, 'if needs be' before you say that you are prepared to die." He thought about it for a very short while, and he said, "Yes, I am prepared to put those words in." And I suppose those words are my contribution to the struggle.

The night before sentencing, do you recall Mandela's mood?
Yes. The possibility of a death sentence was on the cards. I think that the people likely to have been sentenced to death were Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki and Goldberg, because of the roles that they had played. They all put on a brave front, but we were all very concerned, and we discussed whether or not we should immediately give notice of appeal if the death sentence was imposed. They unanimously decided that we should not. It would only have the effect of blunting the process that they expected to commence in the international community against such a sentence. And we know that Mandela made a short note in a handwriting less clear than his ordinary handwriting as to what he was going to say if asked by the judge if he had anything to say before the sentence of death was passed on him. And there were one sentence paragraphs on a sheet of paper. The first saying that many patriots blood had been shed in the past, that if he was going to die, he was going to die like a man, and there was nothing in it showing any remorse or appeal for mercy, or anything like that. Fortunately, he didn't have to use those notes.

You seem to be saying between the lines that Mandela showed a human vulnerability and, possibly, fear. Do you recall his own particular demeanor?
He certainly didn't show anything to us or to his colleagues on trial with him, that he regretted what he had done. He is, after all, a man who, without saying so, showed every sign, from the early '50s when I first met him, that he was a man of destiny. He would not show any sign that that was not correct. He is not an egotist. I have hardly ever heard him, when discussing political matters, to say "I." It is always "we" or "my organization," or "the liberation movement," as if he cannot afford to be seen to suffer from any human weakness. Even though he often, with some humor, says many things against himself.

When he set off to Robben Island, was he laboring under any delusion that maybe he would be out in two or three years?
He certainly did not show that he believed that it was going to be a short period, like most of his comrades that were caught and thought that they would be back with their families within three years, which sustained them and their families. He was more realistic about it. The title of his book, A Long Walk to Freedom, was a phrase that was used earlier on, including the phrase that the road to freedom passes through the jail, and although he was encouraged by what was happening with the de-colonization process in the rest of Africa, he was sufficiently well informed and could deduce that even though the theoreticians in the liberation movement spoke about domestic colonialism, he was smart enough to know that the whites here would try and string it our for as long as possible. And the one thing that he didn't do was to express a feeling of despair, because that would have been counter productive to the people that remained relatively free, whom he wanted to continue the struggle.

You saw him in prison. He somehow elicited a special kind of treatment from the warders. Do you have any recollections or anecdotes to illustrate that?
Yes. On my first visit, in the middle of winter, he was brought to the consulting room where I was waiting. There were eight warders with him, two in front, two at the back, two on each side. Prisoners do not usually set the pace at which they move with their warders. But it was quite obvious that he was--from the open van that they came, right up to the little verandah of the consulting rooms. And I stepped down, past the two in front, and embraced him, said, "Hello." He returned the greeting [and] immediately asked, "How's Zami?" which is, how are the children. And he then pulled himself back, and said, "George, I'm sorry, I have not introduced you to my guard of honor." And then proceeded to introduce each one of the warders by name. Now, the warders were absolutely amazed. I think that this was the first time that they saw a white man and particularly a lawyer, I suppose, coming and embracing a black man, but they were absolutely stunned, and they actually behaved like a guard of honor. They respectfully shook my hand. And there was a lot of evidence that he was treated special, which I knew to my advantage as well. As a visitor, if you visited Mandela, you were invited to lunch at the officers club on the island, where they lived well with seafood cocktail and grilled lobsters. If you visited anyone else, you were left to your own devices, and the only place that you could have lunch at, is the warders canteen, where the specialty was liver hamburgers.

I think there was some other story involving a sandwich or some food, and a warder who let him eat the food ...
Yes, I remember that. As a matter of practice, the warders offered tea and sandwiches to lawyers that went there. Beautifully served. Usually they would bring a teapot and a little tray cloth from their home, judging by the appearances. And I had refused this because they did not make provision for the people I was consulting with. And this would upset them. And in relation to my visit to Nelson, I was asked--but this was a couple of years after, it wasn't right at the beginning--if I would have tea. And I said to the lieutenant, "You know, I do not drink tea alone when I am consulting with someone." And he appeared to be genuinely offended, and said, "We are really surprised, Mr. Bizos, that you would think we would offer you tea and not Mr. Mandela." I said, "In that case, please." So they brought a wonderful tray of sandwiches and I noticed that I was having more sandwiches than Nelson was having. And I said, "Why aren't you having more?" He then said that [some]one--I don't remember who--had beaten him at tennis a couple of days earlier, and he had decided to become fitter in order to take revenge.

[In prison] his superiority as a human being had its effect even on the most inhuman of the people that he had to deal with. Now that was quite an eye opener for me, as to the special place that he had. Something that he, himself, would never have wanted, and he always insisted on his colleagues being treated in the same way, and, of course, it's well known that he made it quite clear that he would not walk out of prison until all his Rivonia colleagues went out before him.

This special response that he had from the prison authorities--was it an early policy on the part of the government or was it something that he, himself, evokes because of the power of his personality?
I don't think it was as a result of any policy on the part of the government because even before his conviction, during the Rivonia trial, the most inhuman prison official was Colonel, later Brigadier Aucamp. Nelson Mandela said that we lawyers must not intervene between him and the prison officials. He wanted to do it himself. Colonel Aucamp would at times pace up and down outside the room in which we were consulting, locked in with our clients (there was a grilled door so that the warders could see us) and Nelson went up to Aucamp, and said, "You know these lawyers give me homework ... and the table that I have in my cell is a rickety one. Could I please have another table because I am under pressure to do this." He spoke politely, and the response of Aucamp was bombastic. "Mandela, you are no longer a lawyer in your office to give orders. You are a prisoner. And we will do what we have to. You can't order us about." Nelson looked at him and he said, "Have you finished, Colonel?" He said, "Yes." He turned round, looked at the man with a key, who opened the grille door, and he came back, sat down, said nothing. Just continued with the consultation with us as if nothing had happened. They took a break for lunch, and he came back with a little smile that you often see [and] says, "Guess what, there's a brand new table in my cell." So that his superiority as a human being had its effect even on the most inhuman of the people that he had to deal with.

You mentioned the story where you were stuffing more sandwiches down yourself ... and the explanation was an example of something that had been seen elsewhere of Mandela's self discipline.

One gets a sense that it is almost as if he was preparing himself for leadership, for what would happen. Do you have any other stories or anecdotes?
Oh yes. He believed that he had a role to play and that he would play it. And I think that that is evidenced by his desire and [how he] applied himself to learn Afrikaans. He spoke Afrikaans to the warders, not in a patronizing way, but he thought that he would learn to speak their language. And when Jimmy Kruger ... went to visit Mandela, in his capacity as Minister of Justice and Prisons and asked him if there was anything that he, Jimmy Kruger, could do, [Mandela] would jokingly have said, "Well you can release me" but he would lose no opportunity to show that he had no quarrel with the Afrikaner people. After all, he had so much admiration of the great Afrikaner Bram Fischer. But he said to Jimmy Kruger, "You know, the collected works of Opperman, an Afrikaner poet, are not in our library. Could you arrange for it be put there, because I like him very much." Well, soon thereafter, the complete works of Opperman were put in the library due to the courtesy of the publisher. He then sat down in his own very characteristic and clear handwriting to write a letter of thanks to the publisher, who turned it over to the then Sunday Afrikaans newspaper--I don't remember its name--but the forerunner of Rapport. He wrote a letter in Afrikaans, and the last paragraph read, "Of course for such a wonderful gift, one would not want to thank you in writing. I am sure that I will have an opportunity in the very near future to call on you and thank you personally." Now, this was in the late '70s. The newspaper actually did show quite a lot of respect for him. They published it in handwriting ... the first part of it on the front page. So he thought that if he is to play a meaningful role in governing South Africa, he could not ignore the wishes of the Afrikaner people. And I think that he has shown that after his release. He is even subjected to some criticism that he is too concerned about them.

There was a danger of making [prison] into a university/holiday camp ... He was submitted to a degree of harassment and there was obviously pain. For example the death of his mother ...
He knew that he would not be allowed to go to his mother's funeral. They almost invariably refused. It was absolutely devastating for him. Not only for him, for all other prisoners when a loved one was not given permission ...

And, of course, [prison] was not a holiday camp. Particularly, in the beginning, when they had to break rock, when they had to pull seaweed out of the cold Atlantic waters to be sold to the Japanese as fertilizer. But by 1976-77, when greater numbers of prisoners, particularly the young ones, came along, there was, I believe, a change of policy, in relation to treatment of all prisoners, and not in relation only to Mandela, who without his wanting it, was receiving special treatment. They allowed them to have music and footballs and tennis. I think that they wanted to show that there were not the brutal people that the death of Steve Biko had shown them to be.

Winnie was used by the state as an instrument to try and get at Mandela's mind.
Yes, I suppose the relationship between the two of them was probably correctly described as a great love story. One of the first things that he would ask is, "How is Zami?" He was very concerned about the fact that she, herself, may be sentenced to a term of imprisonment. I defended Winnie between 1958 and 1993, I suppose on more than 20 occasions, when she was in Brandfort, when she was at Soweto, and particularly in '70-'71 when she and 20 odd others was charged with furthering the aims of an unlawful organization, and she was acquitted, and then redetained and charged with terrorism. He was very concerned, and not only because he didn't want her to be in prison, but also for the children. But at the same time, his pride that Winnie had taken the initiative in forming an ANC network at a time when it was very dangerous to do so was great, and there was an admiration. He asked me what did I think was the public reaction to this. And I still remember the expression of pride on his face when I said, "Well, we'll try our best to get her off."--which we did eventually--"But I want to tell you, that she mirrors your image outside very well." This was a matter of great joy to him, even though he must have had a conflict in his mind as to how bad it would be if she, herself, was sentenced to a term of imprisonment.

Given the fact that he had to ask you that question, one gets the sense of what must have been the tremendous isolation they felt on Robben Island from news generally.
Well, yes, generally speaking, they were kept in the dark about what was happening in the outside world. And what I learned from experience is that don't ask prisoners how they are doing in the prison and don't take up their time wanting to know what's happening inside. What they really want to know is what happens outside. The vital question for Nelson when I saw him, by gesture, would be, "Is Bram Fischer still free or has he been caught?" because he didn't know whether he would be told about this or not. He didn't [know] about what was happening with his wife and children, except this very hurtful newspaper report that they put on his little table in his cell, which was worrying, and he wanted to know about that. But there is an obverse side to that. We must remember that, in many respects, the public in South Africa including ourselves were kept in the dark ...

The wall of silence in legal terms--was it watertight?
Oh, yes. Even when they allowed them to get newspapers and magazines, they would cut practically everything that had anything to do with national or international politics ... the silence was deafening for them. And they were very hungry for information.

Mandela, in the '80s, was submitted to what one might describe as a series of temptations, and one of them was the temptation of his freedom in exchange for abandoning the armed struggle.
... Yes. I think that the apartheid government believed its own propaganda almost right to the end, and it's the reason why they lost out. They believed that they could bribe Mandela in the manner in which they had bribed the bantustan leaders. What they were saying to him, "These exiles are led by the nose by the communists and by the Soviet Union. The people of South Africa would reject that. You have an existence independent of this organization. You come with us, and we will settle the matter, get some authority and we will give some sort of qualified rights to the majority of the people, and all will go well." They didn't know Mandela ... This is why I think they gave him special facilities, at Pollsmoor and at Victor Verster prisons, and this is why they allowed him almost to run an office in the late '80s, where the warder and his son did the cooking, served the meal, the wine and gave him a telephone. That the house was locked but not to prevent Mandela from going out, but preventing people from coming in. And they thought that he would not have able to resist this special treatment.

The ... message that he sent from the balcony at Cape Town, on the day of his release. You will remember the words, "I am a loyal and disciplined member of the African National Congress." They still believed that they would be able to drive a wedge between Mandela and the others. Even during the course of negotiations in 1993, and when the date for the election had been agreed upon, Mandela called for an urgent meeting with de Klerk in the middle of the night, to say that, "You are the president in this country, the violence that is taken place in Natal is unacceptable. You as president can and must stop it." de Klerk's response was, "Mr. Mandela, when you join my government, you will realize how little power a president really has." There expectation was that the ANC would get between 35% and 40% of the vote. Would religious people vote for the communists? Of course not. Would the people want property rights which were going to be taken right away from them? Obviously not. They really did not understand the situation and they really thought that, although they would have to concede some power, they would still be calling the shots after the election.

That interpretation is at odds with what one hears from Kobie Coetsee.
I don't think that Kobie Coetsee really thought that power would slip out of the hands. He, certainly during this long conversation that we had on the plane ride, [didn't] indicate that he felt that there was anything morally wrong for them to be in power, and to exercise the power ... He would refer to Mandela as, "your client" [when] speaking to me. "I must really accommodate a gradual change because," he said, "my people would not accept a one-man one-vote situation." Now, of course, he may have been very guarded when speaking to me, and not expressing his true feelings. But he was doing it with such conviction, and he was saying things to Nelson Mandela which were reported to me, that yes, their suggestions are very tentative, but we must not do or say anything in order to discourage them from the thought that their plans at gradual transformation had no prospect of success.

... That wasn't the only meeting. There were other meetings thereafter. And what Coetsee actually wanted, "What does Oliver say? Is he prepared to go along with the initiatives taken?" He wouldn't say by them, by Mandela for some sort of rapprochement. And I was able to report at a highly secret meeting, at his home, where everybody had been sent away ... and I was able to report yes, that Oliver would go along with anything that Nelson had initiated.

... we worked on the assumption that both the consulting room on Robben Island, the consulting room at Pollsmoor, and the house as a whole at Victor Verster were bugged. But you know, the matters of a sensitive nature could be discussed without the bugs picking it up. We had a habit of taking a piece of paper and writing key words on it, and what the bug would have picked up, would be, "If" and I would be pointing to the name of Oliver Tambo on the piece of paper "would take the attitude that" negotiations (point) ... and so it would go on. So you could actually have quite a meaningful discussion both by reference to the pointing of the words, and by gesture and eye movement ... It may be that when van Heerden's group, the intelligence group, came into the picture, later on ... and Tambo, Mbeki on behalf of the ANC ... I dropped out of it, because there was then direct communication. It may well be that during this period, the public was being prepared that this was a man that you could do business with. But this was certainly not in '85 - '86, beginning of '87.

Did Mandela make any observations to you about his meetings with Kobie Coetsee or Niel Barnard or both ...
You know, I don't remember him saying anything about van Heerden. But he actually believed in the good faith of Coetsee. He believes that everybody is a good guy. Only when people show that they are not on the level with him, he becomes very angry and can become quite scathing. The best evidence of that, of course, is in relation to President de Klerk. He accepted his good faith, he said so publicly, but was so upset when he realized that de Klerk knew about the "third force," would not accept it and would not take adequate steps to put to an end to the killings, particularly those that were done on the trains in KwaZulu Natal, where he believed that portions of Inkatha were in cahoots with the "third force," that was responsible for the killings.

Go back to Kobie Coetsee for a second. The way that he was able to draw P.W. Botha into the notion of talks ...
I, naturally, do not know what was going on between Coetsee and P.W. Botha. What he did say to me was that he was doing this without his president knowing. I don't know whether he was telling me the truth or not. But he most certainly behaved as if his president didn't know, and that his political career would be at an end if his president found out. There is a possibility that he was saying that because he didn't want anybody to know, didn't want the thing to become public--a confidence which I and Nelson and Oliver and anyone else that knew about it, most certainly kept. The first person to speak about this was Coetsee. And I would not have done it if he had not spoken. There was a difference of opinion. I would not call it a split between the enlightened ones and the super conservative ones, in the nationalist party ... and probably Coetsee would have considered himself one of the enlightened ones. There was, by then, a feeling among the Coetsee's group--if there was one of those--that there were aspects of apartheid legislation and practice which were counter productive. Preventing Japanese jockeys from riding horse upset the racing fraternity. It was unnecessary. There was a beginning of thinking that the Immorality Act in relation to marriage and love relationships was not really necessary, although it took some time to let it be. In 1983, on the initiative of the Broederbond, they--and we know that practically all members of the cabinet were members of the Broederbond--they wrote this tricameral constitution and they didn't realize that there was no greater insult to the African majority by their exclusion. So within their own terms of reference, there was a realization, but they failed. They failed to understand the mood of the African people, even the other black people--Indian and colored population--that actually, in the main, felt insulted that the rest of the population should be excluded, and were uncomfortable with what so-called rights that they were given. And we know how effective the boycott of the colored and the Indian people was of that process. But they couldn't understand that.

Your messenger man jobs [during the talks] ... obviously terribly important. Did Mandela express to you concern before he sent you off on one of these missions, about what the ANC outside might be thinking about him.
Reports were filtered to him that there was a concern that in his isolation he may be manipulated by the authorities. He would chuckle at that. And indicate, "Well, they don't have to worry." And get them to understand--although he would probably not admit that he manipulated anybody, but the eye contact was that if there was any manipulation it was the other way around, and that Oliver and the organization in Lusaka and London and Tanzania needn't worry about it. He was in control of the situation.

When you went off to see Oliver Tambo, do you recall him having expressed to you that concern that maybe Nelson is a bit out of it?
Well, remember that Oliver Tambo was a friend and I hadn't seen him since 1960. We met at 8:00 in the evening and we at it until 3:30 in the morning ... Oliver himself did not have any reservations about Nelson's ability to handle the situation. But he did tell me that those who relied on speculation expressed in the media, and those who didn't know what effect the isolation and the age of Nelson had affect were concerned. And there were two strains of thought in the ANC. The Harare declaration did open the door for negotiation, but on the ANC's terms as a victor and when they knew that there were these discussions, they were concerned that in the absence of what they call a collective decision ... they were concerned about what was happening in their absence, and without having any direct contact or authoritative reporting as to what Nelson's mental agility was, his judgment was, how much in control of the situation was he. And I think that my visit reassured Oliver ... although he would have to be circumspect as to how the information came through, he would, at meetings, to be able to speak with confidence, about the matters I had reported on.

[On his release day] ... maybe you could tell what was going on ... Mandela didn't want to be released, and de Klerk wanted to release him ...
Yes. He wanted to come out on his own terms. He delayed it for a week, and the reason was an obvious one. He wanted the organization and its affiliates to organize for his release, to be ready, to make it a media event. To be there in their tens of thousands, in order for him to say that, "I am a loyal and disciplined member of the African National Congress." It disappointed de Klerk and the others. I don't know what they expected him to say, but it was just further evidence that they misread the situation. But primarily it was at the request particularly of the UDF people. The ANC structures had not yet been established to the extent that one would have wanted. And it was necessary to get ready for the situation. It was as simple as that, and he wasn't going to come out until he and his people were ready to receive him.

But de Klerk wanted him to come out earlier. What was the dynamic there?
... de Klerk didn't want his release to become a bigger event than it would have been. He [Mandela] had an opportunity ... you remember it was February the 2nd - February the 10th. Where were the foreign correspondents? Where were the media people? And this is not a decision that he would have made on his own. This was a decision that would have been made in consultation with people in Lusaka and in London, and the ANC man at the United Nations, and t

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