The Honorable Albie Sachs

“It was very liberating for me in a personal way, to turn around the notion of vengeance as being something that’s destructive and making it much more something constructive.”

Albie Sachs is a retired Justice of the South African Constitutional Court. His career in human rights activism began in 1955 at the age of seventeen when, as a second year law student at the University of Cape Town, he took part in the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. During the next 11 years, Justice Sachs worked as an activist and lawyer defending individuals targeted by apartheid laws. After several bouts of detention and solitary confinement, Justice Sachs went into exile in 1966.

In 1988, while he working as a law professor in Mozambique, a bomb placed in Jusice Sachs’ car by South African security agents resulted in the loss of his right arm and the sight of one eye.   After recovering from the bomb blast, Justice Sachs devoted himself to preparations for a new democratic constitution for South Africa. Following the first democratic elections in 1994, President Nelson Mandela appointed Justice Sachs to the newly established Constitutional Court, where he served for 15 years.

Since his retirement from the Court in 2009, Justice Sachs has been a frequent visiting professor at universities and law schools throughout the United States and has served as an advisor on matters of constitutional law. A prolific author, Justice Sachs has won two Alan Paton Awards, for Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter (1991) and The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law (2009).

South Africa Partners honored Justice Sachs with the Desmond Tutu Social Justice Award in 2014.  He spoke with South Africa Partners about his social activism and what this Award means to him.


You often speak about soft vengeance. How did you maintain that focus while in detention and while in exile, and in other difficult situations?

The term and the theme and the sharpness of the expression came to me in a very specific context. It was long after my period in detention started. I had already been in exile for 20 years, so my brain wasn’t functioning in terms of the notion of soft vengeance. It was only after I was blown out of my car and ended up in a hospital in London.

Somebody sent me a note saying ‘We will avenge you.’ He was a guy I loved. He shared danger with me in exile. I thought what does he mean? Are we going to cut off the arms and blind the eyes of people who did this to me? Is that the kind of country we want? So it just occurred to me, if we get democracy, if we get freedom, if we get the rule of law–that will be my soft vengeance. So the whole philosophical notion, the way of putting it, came to me in response to a letter of support from a comrade of mine.

I’ve since developed that notion. The first major activity I did after coming out of hospital was to help draft the first version of the ANC bill of rights for a future democratic South Africa. It just hadn’t been on the agenda before then, and suddenly it became real, and I felt this was really a sort of vengeance, and it was fantastically therapeutic and beautiful. With all the physiotherapists and all the occupational therapist and all the medications in the world, it was most healing to help draft a bill of rights for a freer country. It was very liberating for me in a personal way, to turn around the notion of vengeance as being something that’s destructive and making it much more something constructive, something that transcends the terror and the violence and the abuse. It was very meaningful to use and teach our people.

So the concept came to me in a very specific moment. What kept me going through detention and solitary confinement and torture and sleep deprivation was of a different order. I remember very specifically that when I was in solitary confinement, suffering more than I thought a human being could suffer, I said to myself very, very firmly and clearly, if ever one day I’m in a position of power or authority, I will never ever, ever do this or allow this to be done to another human being. In a sense the concept of soft justice was prefigured by my own experience that we have to transcend and get beyond the inhumanity that human beings can impose upon each other.

You played an important role in the formation of South Africa as a democracy. What do you think South Africa’s future holds?

We have a constitutional foundation that is very strong and deeply implanted. Our constitution is very meaningful, it has institutions to back it up. We have free and fair elections every five years and people come from all over the world to observe them–not to see if we are free, but to see what lessons they can take for our own developing countries. We have presidents who step down after a maximum of two terms. We have a strong, independent judiciary, a very lively press, strong society organizations. In that sense, we are a fresh, vibrant, democratic country and I feel very, very positive.

Does that mean I’m happy with all of South Africa’s policies and its different parts of leadership and so on? It doesn’t mean that at all. As a former judge, I don’t comment on current political situations, as it may reflect on my colleagues who are on the bench. But I can comment on the entrenchment of our constitutional system, which I think is deep and meaningful. South Africans speak their mind. It’s a very vibrant society.

We have all the mechanisms, the institutions, the freedoms that are needed to deal with the many, many grave problems that we have. Lots we inherited, others we’ve created ourselves. I often say that we shot ourselves in the foot so often we’ve run out of feet to shoot ourselves in. We could blame that on apartheid. But I still fall back on the fact that we have a strong constitutional democracy with meaningful institutions and a population that’s very proud of our constitution. I think we will ensure that constitutional democracy prevails.

What would you tell people whose only knowledge of South Africa is what they read in the papers?

If people are reading about South Africa in the papers now, they might be reading about the trial of Oscar Pistorius, and it’s such a poignant and sad case, whatever the outcome might be. But what it does establish is that we have the rule of law here, and we have a functioning judicial system.

The richness of South Africa is in part so many different things that are often not found in one country. People can come here to attend an international conference of 5,000 brain surgeons, and after that, they will go to a wildlife park and camp out and go on a safari. The biggest bicycle race in the world is around the Cape–just two weeks ago, 35,000 people, many of whom were from all over the world, came to cycle around the Cape. So if it’s your brain you want, it’s your body you want, it’s your eyes you want to feast, it’s all here.

Is there a particular experience you can recall that made you feel South Africa was beginning to heal from its history of being a divided society?

The moment for me that was strongest was when we decided to place the constitutional court, the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court, in the heart of the old fort prison in Johannesburg. My colleagues accepted that idea with enthusiasm and the government accepted that with enthusiasm. Instead of building the court in a pristine site somewhere that represented power, we had an international competition to build a beautiful building in the midst of the prison where Mandela was held. For me that is such an intensely meaningful decision. It captured everything we are aiming to achieve in South Africa.

Why do you think South Africa Partners is an effective organization?

I know it’s a good organization. It’s something you feel in your heart, you feel it in your imagination. It has a lot to do with the leadership and the style with which it works. It’s warm and very human, and very collegial. It’s not Americans coming to tell us how we ought to be running our affairs and doing things, and it’s not people coming with bags of money to dish it out to help us buy fishing rods to catch fish and something like that. It’s very interactive.

South Africa Partners is very much based on idealistic ideas and values and people in America sharing their special skills in the areas of health and education, and ideas, always coming back, enthralled, enriched by meeting people on the ground, eager to pick up and share with them things they find.

It has a lot to do with Mary Tiseo and her style of leadership, and the people who enjoy working for South Africa Partners, and enjoy being part of the team. Something emanates from that collegial, comradely style of work in everything that they do. It’s mixed with a lot of humor, a lot of fun, a lot whimsy if you like on the one hand, but also great seriousness in terms of attending to detail, to organization, to management, and to follow-through. I jump at any opportunity I get to do things with South Africa Partners. I’m saying this not because they’re giving me an award. I’m saying this because there are some things you do because it’s your duty, it’s the right thing to do, and you believe in it. And some things you do with delight, and in the case of South African Partners, any collaboration I have with them has always been delightful.

What does the relationship with South Africa Partners mean to you?

My relationship with South Africa Partners has a very special meaning. It is a continuation for me of friendships and the kind of solidarity that was established in the anti-apartheid days. It has a very special meaning for me because of all the marvelous friendships in the United States, starting in the seventies and the eighties, traveling around the states, meeting lots of Americans who first became South Africa conscious through apartheid. This is a continuation with some people, but also meeting many new people. That same sense of solidarity.

Now the focus is not to denounce and destroy apartheid, but to build up South Africa, and that is part of the meaning for me, it represents something that South Africa Partners is emphasizing. I find that in America you have the best of the West, whatever your desires are, you can find it. It can be in cuisine, it can be in friendships, it can be in politics. To me, South Africa Partners represents the best of America, because it’s based on respect for human dignity. It’s based on seeing diversity as a strength. It’s based on curiosity, on empathy. It’s based on laughter. It’s based on a very strong progressive spirit, and I love that. For me, it touches on all the likable things about the U.S. of A and there are lots of them.

You are the recipient of South Africa Partners Desmond Tutu Social Justice Award. What does the award mean to you?

We are slowly, slowly emerging from being a country in which we actually didn’t approve of awards. We did something because it was the way you wanted to lead your life, not to receive special recognition. Part of me is still a little bit like that, thinking ‘why is the spotlight on me when so many people are doing so much, and we always do it together.’

But I must say it’s not too difficult to drag yourself to praise and while I’m struggling with it, I’m kind of happily surrendering. Accepting an award from South Africa Partners on behalf of Desmond Tutu is very, very special. To me, Desmond Tutu is South Africa’s acolyte. Our paths crossed quite often, even though he and I come from totally different backgrounds. I’m tall and he’s short. He’s deeply religious, I’m very secular, and we yet just have a bond. It’s extremely tight and extremely special. It’s a bond no different from a marriage. The fact that you can connect so powerfully with somebody who’s not automatically your friend or like you or has the same beliefs gives that connection an extra intensity. I think he feels that and I certainly feel that in relation to him. So it is very, very special.

It’s kind of mixed emotions inside me in the sense of my culture has been one of you don’t single yourself out, you don’t stand out in any particular way. You don’t do it for awards. You don’t like being separated out from the peers, the generation, the people, the masses if you will. There’s still a little bit of that in me, but there’s still a lot of enjoyment and fun and pleasure. I know it’s going to be a great evening and people there will be bright. There’ll be a sense of fun and celebration. I think it’s going to sparkle, and I think I’m going to feel terrific.

View a personal message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu

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