It isn’t often Charleston gets to host someone considered by many to be a great example of human dignity and justice, someone who has changed the world.
South African high court justice Albie Sachs, now retired from the bench, was in town to deliver a couple of talks; participate in the African Literature Association conference, hosted by the College of Charleston; and meet a few friends and admirers.
Sachs, 78, was appointed to South Africa’s Constitutional Court by Nelson Mandela in 1994, soon after the legendary anti-apartheid leader won the presidency in the country’s first inclusive democratic elections.
Like Mandela and thousands of other revolutionaries, Sachs was imprisoned for his activism during the dark days of apartheid. Twice he was jailed, on no charge, first held in solitary confinement for 90 days, released, then immediately held again. He spent a total of 168 days in a small concrete box, he said. He watched day give way to night, and then return. He lost track of time. He had only a Bible to read, which he rationed so he wouldn’t finish too quickly.
“It was very hard, harder than I imagined.”
After about a month, a guard appeared with a written order. Sachs struggled to read it, having gotten used to the Bible’s vertical columns, but soon realized that it was a court order permitting him more books.
Two years later, he was arrested again. The state’s 90-day law, permitting authorities to detain political prisoners without charge, had become a 180-day law. This time, Sachs was interrogated and tortured with sleep deprivation.
No one ever told him what offense he had committed. But it was obvious why he was the target of the security forces.
He was imprisoned because he was a humanist and agitator for change, because his immigrant father, Solomon Sachs, a labor union leader, had written him a note many years before: “Albert, I wish you a happy 6th birthday. May you grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation.”
He was imprisoned because his mother had taught a young man named Moses Katani how to read and write, then went to work for him when Katani became general secretary of the Communist Party of South Africa and a prominent member of the African National Congress. “The question of race wasn’t an issue for us,” Sachs said. “She had enormous respect for him.”
He was jailed and mistreated because of his membership in the Modern Youth Society, a group of radical, mostly white students who purposefully challenged South Africa’s segregation laws.
He was detained because, for 10 years after obtaining his law degree, he defended poor blacks against an oppressive regime and challenged the state’s racist statutes, often for no pay.
Had he remained in South Africa, he likely would have been arrested again, so warned Stephanie Kemp, one of his clients and a political activist, imprisoned at the same time. He applied for an exit permit and left for London to spend seven years in exile. That second stint in jail broke him, he confessed reluctantly.
“I’ve never really fully got over that, collapsing on the floor ...” And he sighed deeply.
In London, Kemp joined him, they married and had two children. He earned a doctorate and taught law. But the feelings of statelessness were too strong to endure, Sachs said. So he left England, and his family, for Mozambique, located just northeast of his homeland. In Mozambique, a black-led revolution had overthrown the Portuguese colonists, and the sense of liberation was intoxicating to Sachs. Quickly, from the city of Maputo, close to the South African border, he became active in politics again.
“Even when I was happy in England, I was unhappy,” he said. “In Mozambique, even when I was unhappy, I was happy.”
This was the place he knew, and everything from the feel of the earth to the smells produced after a rain reassured him.
One day in 1988, 11 years after returning to Mozambique, he decided to go to the beach for a swim. When he opened the door of his car, the bomb planted by South African security forces exploded, nearly killing him. Apartheid was under siege worldwide, and the Afrikaner government was lashing out at its perceived enemies.
“The bomb restored my optimism,” Sachs said, unexpectedly. “They came for me, and I survived. I felt fantastic. I knew as I got better my country would get better.”
After learning how to write with his left hand, how to regain his balance walking, how to see the world through one functioning eye, he set himself to writing a new constitution for South Africa.
Six weeks after Mandela’s release from his 27-year prison term, Sachs, who was at the time teaching human rights at Columbia University and who had been in exile for 24 years, returned to his homeland.
“I was back — it was joyous,” he said.
He helped organize the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a mechanism for talking about what was once unspeakable and for offering those who acknowledge their crimes an avenue to amnesty and integration.
That process in South Africa, though not without controversy, enabled the peaceful transition to a multiracial democracy and has served as an important model for many throughout the world.
Sachs has decided cases before the Constitutional Court, which further advanced human and civil rights, including one that legalized gay marriage while at the same time affirming religious freedom.
He called that case “a touchstone for something much wider” in a diverse society.
“If we can’t manage to find equality across difference, then we are finished,” he said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparker writer.
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