Nelson Mandela's anti-apartheid activist and personal attorney George Bizos, who fled the Nazis before racism in South Africa, died at his home in Johannesburg, his family said. He was 92 years old.
Bizos died of natural causes, his family said on Wednesday.
Bizos, who came to South Africa at the age of 13 before the Nazi occupation of Greece, played a key role in the legal fight against apartheid, the racist system that suppressed the black majority of South Africa for decades.
"This is a very sad moment for our country," said President Cyril Ramaphosa. "He contributed immensely to the achievement of our democracy" and was one of the architects of the constitution after apartheid. "We bow our heads to honor."
The quiet but determined Bizos represented Mandela, starting with his treason trial in 1964 until the death of the former South African president in 2013. Bizos is credited with getting Mandela to add the words "if necessary" to his speech from the Dock He said he was ready to die for his ideals. The addition was viewed as an escape clause to avoid the impression that Mandela was asking the court to impose the death penalty.
"Another giant in South African history and the global struggle for justice has fallen," said the Nelson Mandela Foundation. It described the friendship between Bizos and Mandela as legendary and recalled Mandela's praise: "I don't think words can adequately express our indebtedness to men and women like George Bizos."
The two met as law students. During Mandela's prison years, Bizos helped take care of Mandela's family and he played a key role in negotiating Mandela's release in 1990. "In the last few years of Mandela's life they have often been found together, just catching up, sharing memories" said the foundation.
Bizos represented a wide range of people who opposed apartheid, including the families of murdered activists like Steve Biko, and helped draft laws for the newly democratic country after apartheid ended in 1994 with Mandela's presidency.
The Southern Africa Litigation Center described Bizos in a statement as "a shining light during the dark days of apartheid and beyond".
Bizos was active in human rights work in South Africa with the Legal Resources Center until well into his 80s. In 2014, he questioned witnesses during an investigation into the deaths of several dozen protesters by police during a strike at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine in 2012.
Bizos regarded himself to the core as Greek and South African. While fighting apartheid, he said he used his training in Greece on democracy and freedom.
He came to South Africa in 1941 as a refugee from World War II. He attended the University of the Witwatersrand, where he dealt with left student politics.
As a young lawyer in 1956, he helped defend Mandela and 155 other South Africans of all races who supported the Freedom Charter and called for non-racial democracy and a socialist economy. All were acquitted.
Bizos was later part of the team credited with saving Mandela and others from the death penalty in the famous Rivonia Trial that saw Mandela and seven others convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Bizos's efforts to defend ordinary South Africans who violated apartheid laws brought home the tragedy of the racist system. In his 2007 essay, Odyssey to Freedom, he wrote about teachers and parents trying to complement the substandard education the white government has designed for black children. Their weekend and afternoon classes, so-called "culture clubs", have been declared illegal.
Despite setbacks in court, Bizos was known to stand up to the police and other officials who used brutal means to enforce apartheid.
"No South African lawyer has done more to combat the abuse of power by the security forces under apartheid," wrote Arthur Chaskalson, himself a well-respected anti-apartheid lawyer, in 1998.
Bizos wrote in his memoir about the rumor that he was the model for Marlon Brando's portrayal of a tough lawyer who fought against the apartheid state in the 1989 film version of Andre Brink's "A Dry White Season". Bizos said he was consulted by the filmmakers about the script.
He saw the premiere of the film in a New York theater full of exiled anti-apartheid activists. There was applause when the character played by Brando revealed in a dramatic courtroom scene that a witness had been beaten by the police.
Mandela, who called Bizos "a man who combined a sympathetic nature with a concise mind", trusted that he not only represented him in court, but later also sent messages from leaders of the African National Congress imprisoned on Robben Island to their colleagues in exile transmitted.
After Mandela's release, Bizos used his legal expertise in negotiations that led to the first elections in South Africa in 1994, in which Mandela was the country's first black president.
After apartheid, Bizos was appointed to a committee that selected judges and worked to ensure that the South African bank was racially representative. He also helped successfully campaign for the abolition of the death penalty.
In 2004, he defended opposition activist Morgan Tsvangirai in neighboring Zimbabwe, who was charged with high treason for allegedly murdering the long-standing, increasingly autocratic President Robert Mugabe. Tsvangirai has been acquitted of the death penalty.
Bizos wrote in his Memoirs of Learning by Studying American History about the importance of protecting freedoms once they are obtained.
"The high principles set out in a constitution or a Bill of Rights are no guarantee that those principles will be enforced or respected," he said. "It takes a lot of work and courage to make sure they are preserved despite an ever-changing history."
Bizos is survived by three sons and seven grandchildren.