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Lessons from a Revolutionary's Lifetime Crusade for Justice

Albie Sachs lost an arm and half his eyesight and lived in exile for years, but he never lost his vision for a just and equitable society in South Africa.

As a member of the African National Congress' struggle against apartheid, Albie Sachs had his home raided, was imprisoned without charge, tortured, left in solitary confinement and blown up in a car bomb. He lost one arm, half his eyesight and lived in exile for years, but Sachs never lost his vision for a just and equitable society, even for the perpetrators. In 1988, he began penning that vision full-time into passages that would become the guiding document -- the new constitution -- to shape South Africa's future as a just, democratic society. In 1994, Sachs became a founding member of the South African constitutional court, appointed by then newly elected President Nelson Mandela. Sachs' latest book, The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law, describes how he attempted, as a Supreme Court justice, to apply those ideals in a complicated world, a much tougher task than he had imagined. But in a dozen or so years, South Africa has gained ground and even stepped ahead of many in the West in its efforts to bridge the equality gap.

Sachs recently discussed his sometimes contradictory life as a human rights lawyer, an outlaw and a justice, and the vision that has been guiding South Africa's quest in leaps and bounds toward true equality.

Maria Armoudian: As a young white lawyer in South Africa and a member of the ANC, you found yourself simultaneously advocating the law and yet an outlaw. How did you reconcile this?

Albie Sachs: During the day I practiced in the high court in Capetown, wearing the advocate's gown and using my skills and persuasive power for my clients. It was very stimulating, but it was in a totally white court, except for the black people who faced prison. So by day, I defended my clients in court, and at night I challenged the whole legal order. Because the constitution and legal system in South Africa was abysmal, explicitly based on race, and manifestly unjust, we challenged it through the legal system while we prepared an underground resistance to overturn the whole order.

MA: You, as a lawyer, ended up in solitary confinement, imprisoned and tortured. What happened?

AS: It was under the 90-Day Law under which you could be locked up for 90 days without access to lawyers, family, anybody -- in total isolation. It was very grim and harsh. After those 90 days went by, one by one, I was released, per the law, but only for three minutes. Then, they re-detained me for another 90 days. Sadly the Supreme Court, the highest court in South Africa at that stage, upheld the validity of repeated 90-day sessions.

MA: The 90 days were without any charges?

AS: No charges, no access to counsel, just to be interrogated and questioned, on the basis that you were suspected of having information about terrorism.

MA: How many of these 90 days in sequence could one go through?

AS: At that time, I knew of people who were detained for at least three sessions. But afterward the law was changed to take away the 90-day limit, so it was open-ended, and people were held in solitary confinement for months or years, not charged with anything -- maybe to be called as a potential witness or if they were obdurate, refusing to cooperate with the authorities. It literally could be indefinite.

MA: You ended up leaving South Africa and living in exile after that.

AS: Yes, my clients expected me to keep them out of jail, not to go to jail myself. It was a very bitter decision. But one couldn't escape from Capetown. We were right in the bottom end of South Africa with no land borders that I could get over. So leaving meant going by boat with an Exit Permit, which allowed you to leave the country on the basis that it would be a criminal offense to ever return.

MA: And so you took the exit permit and you moved to first to England and eventually to Mozambique. Was it in Mozambique that you were blasted in the car bomb?

AS: Yes, after I did a Ph.D. at Sussex University, I taught international law at Southampton University, thinking all the time what can I take back to South Africa and always with a view to repatriating and bringing that material to South Africa. So I went to Mozambique, close to my country, to the problems of my country, and totally engaged until 1988.

MA: You wrote that the car bomb that blew off your arm and took away half of your eyesight also blasted away the 'schism that had divided you,' that it 'hurled you out of a legal routine and freed you to recreate your life.' How did that happen?

AS: It's funny hearing you say that. I'd forgotten I'd written that, but it sounds rather good. The solitary confinement and the sleep deprivation -- attacks on my mind, my will and my soul -- were far more injurious than the attack on my body. Yes, I did lose an arm, and the sight of one eye. But this is what everybody in the freedom struggle thinks about: Will they come for me today? If they do come for me, will I be strong, will I get through? And I survived. And even more than that, I think every human being wonders: If I were to die tomorrow, will somebody cry? People thought I was dead, and they cried and I know that.

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