This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
08 Dec 2003: Bizos, George
POM. It's Patrick O'Malley. If you're ready, I'm all ready.
GB. I am ready.
POM. OK. I am talking to Mr George Bizos on 8 December 2003. Mr Bizos, this is in connection with the Little Rivonia trial. You were the Advocate for three of the four of the accused, that's for Wilton Mkwayi, for John Matthews, for Dave Kitson and for Mac Maharaj.
. Now the first time you met them, according to Mac, was when you were in the cells of the Supreme Court when you were getting ready to go in for the case to be presented to the judge.
GB. It would have been some days before, if not weeks before that.
POM. It would? OK. What was your first impression of Mac when you met him?
GB. Well he was very articulate, very earnest, very tense. His description of what had happened to him in detention was horrendous. I had the indictment and we had to be very careful about the way we consulted because we feared that we would be bugged. It was apparent from even the first consultation that he had no defence, no legal defence to the charges, and the apologia rather than defence had taken form in the Rivonia trial where Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki were the accused and how, "We will not indulge in petty perjuries about the allegations against us." It was a political response. "We had no option but to break your laws which we had no moral obligation to obey." I followed the usual procedure of asking them to write out, in order to avoid the bugging, to write out what they wanted to say to us. He was obviously more articulate and more literate than any of the other accused except, of course, David Kitson.
POM. Did he tend to take charge as it were?
GB. Yes, there could be no doubt that he was the intellectual leader of the group. Kitson was probably less orthodox than Mac and Mac actually was able to articulate the defence. He was underground whilst the Rivonia trial was going on. He was obviously aware of what was happening so he was of great help in preparing the apologia rather than to have a legal defence.
POM. Now where would you meet them? You wouldn't meet them in the Number 4 where they were being held?
GB. I think we did have some consultations in Number 4 but this was the pre-trial discussions. You'd better check that with him because I can't think of any reason – I certainly wouldn't have started my consultations on the day that the trial started.
POM. OK, yes.
GM. The consultations were probably quite a number of them in Number 4.
POM. Now he talks about when he went into the courtroom. I went and I got a transcript of the trial so I could check what he said against the transcript, but I did note that he burst out with a statement to the judge about how he had been tortured and the judge just went for it and he says that when he paused, the judge grabbed a gavel and said, "A copy of this record will be sent to the police to investigate. You are now awaiting trial. The court is adjourned." He said, "I remember George Bizos coming over to me and saying. 'Mac, that was fantastic but you missed one thing'." He said, "What?" He said, "You named the guys but you should have pointed at them. They were sitting there in the gallery and you should have said – that one is Swanepoel, this one is such and such." And he said, "Shit! Have I fucked it up?" And you said, "No, you didn't fuck it up." Do you have any memory of saying that to him?
GB. It sounds probable although I cannot have any independent recollection because I defended so many people. It's the sort of thing that I would have said because, if I may say so, well let me repeat what others say, that I have a sense of the dramatic.
POM. When you made your statement, you were dramatic. Now he goes on to say –
GB. Could I just correct one thing. You're from the United States are you?
POM. I'm from Ireland really.
GB. Do they have gavels in Ireland?
POM. Oh they sure do.
GB. Well not down here, because every writer incorporates the gavel into their accounts, including the man that helped Nelson Mandela and Nelson missed the insertion of the gavel. I'm helping with a screen play and they had to remove the gavel.
POM. There are no gavels there?
GB. There are no gavels there.
POM. That's interesting because Mac says, it's Mac himself who says, "As soon as I paused the judge grabbed the gavel." So they all believe there was a gavel.
GB. No, there is no gavel. He probably used that metaphorically, the judge intervened. There's no gavel. If you are looking for local accuracy, no gavels.
POM. That's really interesting that both Mandela would use the gavel too and Mac would use it.
GB. I know how it happens in Mandela's case. I'm trying to avoid it here.
POM. Did he talk about the Benoni bank robbers ever to you and their plan for escape?
GB. I have no distinct recollection but this was sort of part of the modus operandi of the security police. They would have these common law prisoners either awaiting trial or convicted and being tried on other matters and they would make these offers. The political people knew not to trust them because the belief was quite firmly held that if you tried it they would shoot you. So it was an attempt, I don't think that it ever succeeded. They tried it with Nelson Mandela, they tried it with Bram Fischer. I have no reason to disbelieve Mac when he says they tried it with them.
POM. Yes, but they were going for it. They had bought into it. Mac has tried to escape from every place he's been. Justice Boshoff, what kind of judge was he?
GB. Tight-lipped, clever, master of criminal law and procedure, hardly ever, except in one case where he felt for the parents sitting at the back alone when their son was on trial, but they were white, did he show any empathy. When I had the state witness, what was his name?
POM. Lionel Gay.
GB. When I had Gay against the ropes he took an early adjournment as he was about to say that he was tortured and that is why he spilt the beans. He took an early adjournment. He was an Afrikaner ideologue but he was clever enough to give an appeal proof judgment. He was polite and there were no histrionics about him but not a sympathetic human being.
POM. On the rank of, and I don't know whether you can do this, but of all the judges you dealt with, would you call him a hanging judge, or somebody - ?
GB. He was probably amongst the most committed but he was clever enough not to make serious mistakes. For instance when I was arguing the question of sentence, because there was no defence on the merits, I argued that life imprisonment was too harsh even for Wilton Mkwayi because the leaders who had really started the underground resistance had got life imprisonment. The second tier of leadership should get less. He said that the leaders may have been too leniently dealt with, they may well have had the death penalty imposed on them so he gave me the fright of my life, I've never had a death sentence in a political trial except in an appeal where I was not in the trial. He said the case is distinguishable and Wilton Mkwayi may well qualify for the death sentence because he taught half of Soweto how to make homemade gunpowder. That was a very uncomfortable moment.
POM. Now Mac says that you said that he might face the death penalty too because there was this whole question of Lionel Gay saying an execution squad had been approved and Mac was pointed out also by Piet Beyleveld as being a member of the Central Committee of the SACP.
GB. Well it would have been a possibility which I obviously discussed but as it turned out not even Boshoff was prepared to outdo De Wet with life sentences in the Rivonia trial.
POM. Mac is very hard on Lionel Gay. He said Lionel Gay had broken ranks in detention and in the trial gave evidence for the state. "He was an amazing witness. The man had a remarkable ability to withstand cross examination by our lawyers and virtually silenced them."
GB. Yes, Fred Zwarenstein was brought in.
POM. For Kitson.
GB. For Kitson, although Joel Joffe who was very friendly with Zwarenstein but Kitson was not an easy customer and he wanted a Senior Counsel, I was a Junior at the time. So Zwarenstein came in and when the adjournment came he acknowledged that he wasn't making any impact at all on this witness. You see the problem is that witnesses in conspiracy trials are intelligent, and this was an academic, who are telling the truth and embellishing on the sort of propaganda that has been sold to them during detention in order to discredit the movement. They still on the factual situation are very strong because they stick to the facts and you can't shake them. You may be able to shake them when they try to propagate the political agenda of the prosecutor, you may be able to get them. Gay was ready, I thought, when the judge called for an early adjournment, to spill the beans to justify himself as to why he agreed to give evidence because the statement was extracted from him under force and also he hinted but he never got to it that others had betrayed him, but he never got around to mentioning them and I was actually a little bit careful and backed off a bit because it doesn't do anybody any good to allow people to talk about who weakened under tremendous torture.
POM. Mac said there was a terrible sense of betrayal with Gay. He said he went 'the extra mile' as he says, that he was providing information that he needn't have provided.
GB. Well the seasoned underground activist was trained to agree to only what they already knew and he or she must not give any information not known to the interrogator. The torture, deprivation of sleep, physical exhaustion, fear of what is likely to come next, doesn't enable people to keep control of themselves and sometimes they just amble on. We also had examples of people actually hallucinating, being half asleep. They would hallucinate and let out things.
POM. This is while they were being interrogated?
GB. Interrogated. Yes. You see if you haven't slept for 72 hours –
POM. Sure. Sleep is the best form of torture.
GB. Yes, and you're standing and your feet are swollen and they ask you questions. I mean we had an example of a man talking himself out of the trouble that he was taken in for but in a semi-hallucinatory state. He confessed how he had helped four prisoners after they escaped to get out of the country and got 18 months in prison for helping the prisoners to escape for his trouble.
POM. Gay visits Wilton Mkwayi every year in Port Elizabeth and he went back into the ANC when he went to London. I don't know whether you know this, but in 1985 Joe Slovo wanted to bring him into the Central Committee of the SACP.
GB. I didn't know that.
POM. In Moscow he made a proposition to Mac and Mac nearly went crazy. Slovo had no idea that he had been –
POM. Well no, that he had given testimony at his trial because his name never appeared in newspapers.
GB. Oh I see. You mean the London people didn't know?
GB. My goodness me. Well you know I somehow find that difficult to believe. I'll tell you why because Joel Joffe went out of the country and Joel Joffe knew. Joffe was friendly with Hilda and Rusty Bernstein and they must have known and the liaison between people like Joel and Hilda Bernstein must have been close. Anything is possible but I find it difficult to believe.
POM. He has a statement here, he, Mac, is saying, "The evidence was pretty much against me because of my membership of the party and the Central Committee. George was trying to draw a distinction between membership of the Communist Party and MK. The judge intervened, he said, 'Mr Bizos, you and I know the communists, they don't allow - " and he makes this gesture with his hand from the bench, 'They don't allow the left hand to know what the right hand is doing'."
GB. That's highly probable because, you see, being in the ANC was bad enough, being a communist was worse, being an Indian and a communist and doing MK work was the worst of all.
POM. That was the triple lock.
GB. Yes, you see because a white communist would suffer the same – would be more or less on a par with an Indian communist because the premise was that our Africans or our Bantu population of South Africa is both docile and would not have had anything to do with violence and there wouldn't have been any sabotage or any real anti-government activity if it were not for this majority of Indian and white communists.
POM. Did you find, this is a kind of a side question that I've asked others too, and I'll put it in a context for you, when I was growing up in Ireland, the most Catholic of Catholic countries, from an early age we were told of the evils of communism, atheistic communism taking over the world and we used to pray every Sunday at Mass, three Hail Marys for the conversion of Russia. I know there was one communist who stood for public office once, ran for parliament, he was a bus driver and I have recollections that every time I got on a bus if the bus driver looked dour or tight or whatever, I said, "That must be the communist because he knows he's going to go to hell." And I'm just saying that because it was inculcated into us to be fearful of communism.
GB. Yes, well the God-fearing Calvinists I think can beat the devout Catholics.
POM. They can? Oh God!
GB. With a trick or two because, you see, I think that Catholics have a sense of humour, Calvinists haven't. You see, let me illustrate this to you, one of the reasons that De Klerk miscalculated during the early parts of the negotiation process, he actually thought that the ANC would not get an overall majority and that it would have to work in coalition with the Nationalist Party in order to rule. They gave themselves 30% - 35% of the vote. The rationale was that our Bantu population is predominantly Christian, they will not vote for these communists. This was the miscalculation which made the settlement easier to reach. So you are quite correct in the parallel that not only did they perform these horrendous acts of violence by putting bombs, albeit with care that human life would not be affected, but they were the monsters, they were compared to the Red Brigades of Italy and to the Bader Meinhof of Germany, they were terrorists.
. One of the plusses, according to Nelson Mandela, was the Rivonia trial and the way it was handled persuaded fair minded people that had this spookish image of the ANC and its leadership been under the control of Soviet Commissars, the forthright manner in which they spoke, the way Walter Sisulu stood up to the cross examination, made some of the people in the west, particularly in the US, to a lesser extent in the UK because they had a much more humane approach and I don't think that the Nordic countries were adversely affected by the scare stories about the communists.
. But Mac's colour, racial origin, education, making bitter complaints about the hard work and the hardworking security police put him at the bottom of the pack.
POM. Now he mentions that when the strategy was that none of them would subject themselves to cross examination, he says that Masters was furious and that he, Masters, said that he had a 113 page statement from one of the accused. Is that correct?
GB. Yes, well, you see they couldn't put those statements in because they were under detention but those were statements in which the soul of the detainee was dissected and the private information, innermost thoughts, weaknesses were described and they would want, although they couldn't lead it in evidence, they could cross examine on it. You see to ridicule the accused and particularly to expose the immorality of looking at dirty pictures or committing adultery or mentioning people in their statements. The other thing, of course, one of the reasons why they would not give evidence was because they couldn't really exculpate themselves but they could also be asked questions about others, that although they were compelled to mention their names under torture they were not prepared to repeat it in the witness box in open court.
POM. So you do recall there being that, Masters saying that?
GB. He might have said it privately. I don't remember him saying it publicly. This would be – you know the dock was very near, the dock was in the centre of the court and Counsel's bar was quite near to the dock on the right hand side, the witness box on the left on the other side.
POM. The follow-up of it is that Mac says he was so furious that one of them might have betrayed the others that he wanted to know which man made the statement and he wanted to go into the cross examination box even if it resulted in him getting a death sentence because he wanted to find out who made the bloody statement, and he had to be talked out of it by everyone.
GB. Yes. Now you see we had to do a fair amount of damage control and these were intelligent people, they realised that they wouldn't do their cause any good by exposing themselves for cross examination particularly if they angered the judge by refusing to answer questions. Because the technique was: whose house did you meet in? We met, I'm not prepared to tell you whose house we met in. Why? Well it can be only of interest to the security police, it doesn't advance the evidential proof of any of the allegations. Although we could pre-cognise people to give that sort of answer it sounded too clever by half to the judge and he would take it out on sentence.
POM. Do you have any memory of this imbroglio when Mac wanted to go into the box just to find out who would have given - ?
GB. I have no specific recollection of it but it sounds probable. He would have wanted because he feels very strongly and he's prepared to sacrifice himself. But I would insist on my calling the shots and not him and generally speaking they trusted us and they followed our advice.
POM. Let me just ask you in conclusion, and, again, thank you for taking the time so quickly to do this, and I hope when I get to Johannesburg to meet you. I would just like to be one of those who could say I know George Bizos, I shook his hand. Who is Mac?
GB. You mean if you were to ask me?
GB. Well he is a person who could not bear, having regard to his intelligence and his commitment, could not possibly bear being treated as a second class citizen. He was passionate about his own freedom and the freedom of others. He was prepared to expose himself to the gravest dangers but was prepared to allow himself to cool down for the benefit of the trial, for the benefit of the organisation, for the benefit of his co-accused.
POM. Who is he as a person? You've known him on and off over the years. A lot of people say to me, you know, what's happening right now is Mac being Mac, that he stakes out a position on something and just goes for it.
GB. I think that had he asked me I would have advised him not to do it.
POM. I think most people advised him not to do it, to tell you the truth.
GB. Yes. But people say Mac will be Mac, I don't agree with it. I think - are you old enough to have learnt Latin at school?
POM. Oh sure I am.
GB. Yes, it's contra naturum suum, as we say, it's contrary to his general. If they say Mac would be Mac and that we would have expected him to do this, I don't agree with it.
POM. Who do you see him then as? If you had to describe him as a person, would it be brilliant, arrogant, egotistical?
GB. Self-assurance perhaps. Self-assurance rather than arrogance I think. But I think that he's probably regretting this as fervently as he believed in the correctness of what he was doing or what he has done.
POM. You don't doubt that what he has done he believes to have been the correct thing to do?
GB. I think he made a very serious mistake in judgement.
POM. Well I think that is all I have to ask of you. Thank you ever so much for taking the time right now. I'll send you on a transcript of this so you can go through it and verify it.
POM. Thank you very much. Bye-bye now.