A champion of human rights, he represented his client and friend in the so-called Rivonia trial of leaders of the African National Congress in the 1960s.
George Bizos, who fled the Nazi occupation of his native Greece at age 13 to become one of South Africa’s most prominent human rights lawyers, championing Black people who were denied those rights and devising a three-word phrase that may have shielded his client and friend Nelson Mandela from execution, died on Wednesday at his home in Johannesburg. He was 92.
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the death in a televised news briefing. No cause was given, but he said Mr. Bizos’s health had recently begun to fail.
Over a long and combative career, Mr. Bizos was one of only a handful of lawyers who sought redress for victims of racial separation through the very legal system that sanctioned it. While deeply flawed by the pervasive prejudice of the times, South Africa’s legal establishment did offer some slim protection to the accused under a white minority regime that liked to boast of a commitment to Western values.
In his lawyer’s black robes and starched white bib, Mr. Bizos honed his skills throughout the 1950s in remote rural courthouses, where the authorities sought to deploy apartheid law against little-known offenders, long before the well-publicized trials that cemented his reputation.
“The new apartheid government was determined to use the law not only to crush all opposition but also directly to oppress people,” the University of Cape Town once said in an appreciation of Mr. Bizos. “These lawyers were just as determined to use the law in whatever way they could to protect their clients against the abuse of state power.”
In his later years, particularly after the death of Mr. Mandela in 2013, Mr. Bizos expressed disappointment and disillusion with South Africa’s swerve toward corruption and misrule two decades after its first fully democratic elections in 1994. “We have failed to live up to the vision of Mandela,” Mr. Bizos said at a memorial for the former president in December 2013.
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Indeed, from 2012 to 2015 he was among the lawyers who represented the families of 34 striking miners killed by the police at Marikana — bloodletting that he likened to atrocities of the apartheid era.
While many of his trials were fought in the glare of publicity, which he often sought to exploit, Mr. Bizos claimed a particular contribution to the destiny of his adoptive land by urging Mr. Mandela to insert three words — “if needs be” — into his oft-cited address from the dock at the so-called Rivonia trial of leaders of the African National Congress in the early 1960s.
In his first draft, Mr. Bizos said, Mr. Mandela had written that he was prepared to die for “the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”
But at the urging of Mr. Bizos, who feared that the words might invite the death sentence, Mr. Mandela said: “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.”
In 1964, Mr. Mandela and others among the accused were convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment — a term that ended for Mr. Mandela with his release in February 1990.
(Mr. Bizos was third figure from the Rivonia trial to die this year. The others were the last two surviving co-defendants, Andrew Mlangeni, who died in July, and Denis Goldberg — the only white defendant in the group — who died in April.)
In 1986, while still in prison, Mr. Mandela chose Mr. Bizos as his confidential emissary to brief exiled members of the A.N.C. on secret negotiations with the Afrikaner authorities.
In “Odyssey to Freedom,” a memoir published in 2007, Mr. Bizos wrote that he had harbored an enduring revulsion of injustice in South Africa from the moment he landed in Durban, on the Indian Ocean coastline, in the 1940s and saw Black men consigned to hauling rickshaws. It was, he wrote, the first time he had seen “a man doing work reserved for animals, and it shocked me greatly.”
Well after South Africa’s landmark 1994 election, which swept Mr. Mandela to power, Mr. Bizos continued his courtroom crusade to expose the bloody actions of the apartheid police, committed years earlier in the suppressing of adversaries like Steve Biko, who died in police custody in 1977.
In hearings called by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s, Mr. Bizos represented the families of leading foes of apartheid, including Matthew Goniwe, an educator who was one of three activists murdered by the police in 1985. They were known as the Cradock Four, named for the small, segregated township in the Eastern Cape region where they had built a challenge to white rule.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Bizos joined other lawyers in court proceedings to formally approve South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, regarded as one of the most liberal in the world.
He acted as an independent barrister for many years, but from 1991 onward he was associated with the Legal Resources Center, a prominent firm of human rights lawyers in Johannesburg of which he became senior counsel. Mr. Bizos also worked in Botswana and Zimbabwe, where he defended Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, against treason charges in 2003.
For decades Mr. Bizos represented Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a friend and activist in her own right during the imprisonment of Mr. Mandela, her husband. Soon after his release in 1990, the marriage ended in a bitter divorce, and Ms. Madikizela-Mandela faced charges related to the harsh mistreatment of boys staying at her home in Soweto.
The body of one of them, Stompie Seipei, 14, was later found in a field with his throat cut. Although Ms. Madikizela-Mandela was not charged in the killing, the boy’s fate became a byword for the brutal behavior of her bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club. In early 1991 she was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for kidnapping and assault, but the sentence was reduced on appeal.
The charges, Mr. Bizos suggested in his memoir, were part of a progressive diminution of Ms. Madikizela-Mandela’s stature and judgment. “For Nelson, her family, the movement and the nation,” he said, the damage to her reputation in the late 1980s and onward “was a serious embarrassment.”
“For Winnie,” he added, “it was nothing less than a tragedy.”
Mr. Bizos’s close association with the travails of South Africans as they fought against apartheid and emerged from it seemed an improbable destiny for a man whose Mediterranean roots endured in a love of modern Greek poetry and in his marriage to a fellow Greek, Arethe Daflos, an artist who died in 2017. They had three sons, Kimon, Damon and Alexi, who survive him, as do seven grandchildren.
Such was his commitment to his heritage that, in 1974, Mr. Bizos took the lead in founding a racially-integrated Hellenic school in South Africa.
“I have lived through the joys and sorrows of the South African people,” he once said of his ties to his adoptive land. “That’s what really binds you to a country.”
Asked whether he would support Greece or South Africa in a soccer match, he replied, “It would be better for me if it was a draw.”
George Bizos was born in November 1927. The exact date was never known because municipal records were burned during the Nazi occupation of Greece, Mr. Bizos said in his autobiography, although his mother, Anastasia Tomaras, recalled it as Nov. 14.
His father, Antonios Bizos, was the mayor of Vasilitsi, a village in the southern Peloponnese. George, one of four siblings, attended a school that he once likened to the overcrowded classrooms of Soweto. His mother was a homemaker who, in the traditions of rural Greece at the time, had been denied formal schooling and learned to sign her own name only as an adult.
After the Nazi occupation, the young Mr. Bizos became embroiled in an undertaking, led by his father, to spirit to safety seven New Zealand soldiers trapped behind the lines. In May 1941, the soldiers and their rescuers slipped out of Greece on a fishing boat and were themselves rescued by a British warship, the H.M.S. Kimberley, which took them to Egypt.
From there, Mr. Bizos sailed to South Africa with his father as refugees at a time when racial oppression seemed unchallenged and pro-Nazi sentiment among some Afrikaners ran high. The train taking them from Durban was forced to divert to a station in Johannesburg to avoid crowds of Nazi sympathizers protesting the arrival of the “filth” of Europe.
His father found work in a munitions factory in Pretoria, the capital, and later worked as a shop assistant there, while his son stayed with Greek friends of the family in Johannesburg. After struggling to learn Afrikaans and English while working as a shop assistant, and after scraping together tuition money, George Bizos enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He completed his law degree in 1950, two years after the National Party came to power and began codifying apartheid. He was admitted to the Johannesburg bar in 1954.
While Mr. Bizos’s two brothers later emigrated to South Africa, he did not see his mother for more than 20 years, until she traveled to South Africa in the 1960s. His parents seemed remote from each other by then, he wrote, with his mother expressing “no wish to see my father” before returning to Greece several years later.
His father died in a freakish manner in 1969. Recovering from a motorcycle accident, and wearing a plaster cast on one leg, he fell in a bathroom at his home after leaving a coffee pot on a stove. The coffee boiled over, extinguishing the flame, and his father “succumbed to the leaking gas,” Mr. Bizos wrote.
Working with two other lawyers — Mr. Mandela and Oliver Tambo, who went on to lead the A.N.C. — Mr. Bizos represented clients in obscure rural places in cases that revealed the minutiae as much as the ubiquity of laws devised to keep the races apart.
In a foreword to Mr. Bizos’s memoir, Mr. Mandela said that he and Mr. Tambo had frequently acted as the instructing attorneys for cases in which Mr. Bizos was the courtroom advocate representing victims of apartheid. Later, Mr. Bizos was the among the lawyers representing Mr. Mandela and others in epochal trials in the 1950s and ’60s that became landmarks in South Africa’s modern history.
At their most intrusive, apartheid laws decreed where people could live and where they would be buried; which schools they could attend and what they might learn; whom they could sleep with and where they could sleep. Buses were segregated by race, and so were park benches, railroad stations, beaches, stores and entire areas in the patchwork of urban townships and so-called tribal homelands that blanketed the land.
It was in those early cases that Mr. Bizos confronted the central paradox of his chosen profession.
“In South Africa there was at least lip service” paid to the legal principles, he wrote in his memoir. “And the courtroom often was the last forum available to condemn oppressive policies and the deprivation of fundamental rights.”
Only in court, he said, could one demand for all South Africans the rights “to meaningful citizenship, free and fair elections, dignity, equality and a fair distribution of goods and honors in a democratic state.”
Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting.
An earlier version of this article misstated when South Africa's first fully democratic elections took place. They were in 1994, not 2004.
NEW YORK TIMES