Newsletter 06/10

Symposium of 25 May 2010 at the French Senate

Symposium of 25 May 2010 at the French Senate

Nelson Mandela and the democratic transition

At the meeting organised on 25 May 2010 by the French Committee for South Africa at the Senate, George Bizos, counsel to Nelson Mandela, was honoured. He was awarded the medal for the abolition of the death penalty by Robert Badinter, Senator and former President of the French Constitutional Council.

The event was attended by the two French ambassadors in office during the democratic transition, Mrs Joëlle Bourgois and Mr Tristan d'Albis.

Introduced by Yves Laurin, Chairman of the Committee – who together with Dominique Sopo, President of SOS Racisme, evoked the memory of Dulcie September, the ANC representative assassinated in Paris in 1988 – the meeting brought together over one hundred people, members of the diplomatic corps and the Senate, journalists, academics, judges, lawyers and friends of South Africa.

Mr Linda Maso, advisor to the South African Embassy, also spoke to praise the Committee's initiative. In memory of her mother Helen Suzman, Mrs Frances Suzman Jowell received the French Committee for South Africa 2010 prize on which George Bizos affixed his signature.

George Bizos and Frances Suzman Jowell recalled the main chapters in the democratic transition still ongoing in South Africa. The meeting ended with a screening of the film directed by Joël Calmettes “Nelson Mandela: in the name of freedom”

George Bizos - counsel to Nelson Mandela

Born in Greece in 1928, George Bizos, Senior Counsel at the Bar in South Africa, is an internationally renowned lawyer. IWhen still only a young teenager, he became a hero in his home country. In 1941, in an act of bravery against the Nazi occupation, he helped save seven New-Zealand soldiers who he took on a small fishing boat in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean. Picked up by a British ship, he was dropped off in Egypt before landing in Durban in South Africa, as a refugee on board the French vessel, Ile de France.

After thewar, at the Witwatersrand Law Faculty in Johannesburg, he noticed an older black militant student whose personality impressed everyone: Nelson Mandela. At university, George Bizos was very soon regarded as a radical! And he indeed successfully asserted that black students should attend the annual dinner to which they were hitherto denied access.

During his legal career, George Bizos was involved in all the legal battles of Nelson Mandela who had opened the first firm of black lawyers in South Africa in 1953, with Oliver Tambo. When Nelson Mandela was banned from pleading by a judge who demanded that he produce his certificate of qualification right away, he had the decision quashed by the Supreme Court.

George Bizos was present in the 1961 Treason Trial in which, against all the apartheid government's expectations, the accused, including Nelson Mandela, were all acquitted.He was again on the defence team in 1963- 1964 in the Rivonia trial, the major trial of the 20th century in which the issues were threefold:

- Legal: the death penalty was called for particularly against Nelson Mandela, the main defendant.

- Democratic: the future of South Africa was at stake. Nelson Mandela's plea for a democratic society, with the same rights for all citizens, dominated the hearings.

- International: the UN's role in the resolution of conflicts was asserted. Thus, the United Nations Security Council adopted a special resolution for amnesty before the verdict.

At the last minute, George Bizos advised Nelson Mandela to add the words “if needs be” to his final speech before saying that he was prepared to die for his ideals. His advice may well have been decisive.

At the last minute, George Bizos advised Nelson Mandela to add the words “if needs be” to his final speech before saying that he was prepared to die for his ideals. His advice may well have been decisive.

In 1995, George Bizos was the lawyer who had the death penalty abolished by the new Constitutional Court, hearing its very first case.

He continued his action outside South Africa. In 2005 in Harare, Zimbabwe, he defended opposition leader Tsvangirai and obtained his acquittal. The latter is today Prime Minister under a power-sharing agreement with President Mugabe, and there is a glimmer of hope. Today, George Bizos works mainly at the Legal Resources Centre, an association founded during apartheid which voluntarily helps poor people in South Africa for the recognition of their fundamental rights.

L'hommage à Helen Suzman

What courage and determination Helen Suzman, parliamentarian opposed to apartheid for 36 years, deployed! In that parliament, a true bunker of apartheid, she was the voice of political prisoners and Nelson Mandela, refusing to vote for the ignominious laws of the time. She tabled bills for the abolition of the death penalty, an act definitely not lacking in temerity.

For a few years, Helen Suzman was even the only woman and the only opponent of apartheid in parliament. Fully committed to the values of democracy and the application of the rule of law, on several occasions she visited the prisoners on Robben Island and managed to improve their dreadful conditions of detention by standing up to the authorities. In his memoirs, Nelson Mandela recounts that Helen Suzman's visits to Robben Island were “a moment of grace”.

Her commitment to the people in the townships was also remarkable. And at Nelson Mandela's request, she was at his side when he signed the new constitution. The entire nation was in mourning when she passed away last year. Flags were half-masted and all the parties paid their respects around the President of the Republic.

Today, her work continues through her foundation. Light has shone on South Africa thanks to key figures like Helen Suzman who remains an outstanding reference. The commitment of South-African women who today account for almost half the country's MPs is an example for France.

Organisations to support

Three sites can be consulted to send in contributions and useful aid:

- the Nelson Mandela Foundation Web site:

- the Helen Suzman Foundation Web site:

- the Web site of the Legal Resources Centre: with which George Bizos works.

The democratic transition inspiring Nelson Mandela's work is part of these major organisations' concrete projects. They are essential voices of democracy and models for European countries.