Against all odds

Monday, July 27, 2009

The story of Albie Sachs

As a white lawyer in an apartheid South Africa, veteran Constitutional Court Judge and author Albie Sachs knew that to fight and defeat the oppressive system, he had to take advantage of his skin colour, writes Chris Bathembu.

As his 15-year career at the highest court in the land draws to an end, one thing many in the legal fraternity will remember about Justice Sachs is his rare understanding of constitutional law.

But most of all, the courageous contribution and sacrifices he made to ensure the realisation of a democratic order in South Africa.

As I entered his suite at the Constitutional Court this week, the first thing that caught my attention was his latest book 'The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law' which was lying on his desk. The book is set to be launched locally and abroad soon.

It tells a moving story of a man whose resistance to the apartheid regime not only tore his family apart but left him with one arm and damaged eye-sight.

Justice Sachs takes a brief pause as he tells the chilling and yet inspiring story of his car bombing incident in 1988.

One obvious consequence of the ordeal is his almost illegible hand writing; he had to learn to use his left hand after losing the right one.

"It changed my appearance but in a way it liberated me. I had to start life all over again, I had to learn to sit up, to stand, to walk, to run, to write with my left hand and to tie my shoe laces with one hand," he said.

As it became evident more than 20 years later, Sachs did not let the incident distract him from his mission.

Instead, for this recipient of several prestigious awards, including the Alan Paton Award for Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, human rights activism got even stronger as he aligned himself with the likes of Oliver Tambo.

It is his interaction with OR, as Tambo was affectionately known, that got Sachs attached strongly to the African National Congress (ANC) in exile where he helped draft the organisation's code of conduct as well as its statutes.

"His influence on me was very great and prepared me for being a judge and helped me to work on the constitution because OR fought for the bill of rights, inside the liberation organisation.

"He embraced everybody and was deeply religious, whereas I was from a very circular background."

Sachs never felt as an outsider in the predominantly black ANC and had later used his brilliance in constitutional law to defend many of the organisation's members and people charged under apartheid's racist laws.

It is for this reason that Nelson Mandela saw it fit to appoint him as one of the judges in the Constitutional Court in 1994.

A new struggle, as he later found out, had begun for him as he had to transform from being a die-hard comrade to a player in an independent justice system.

Born into a political family, Sachs's life, as he puts it, was "complicated" from the beginning.

His father was a unionist while his mother was a typist for Moses Kotane, secretary of the Communist Party, and this certainly created problems for the Sachs family. It meant the family would be persecuted.

But Sachs's dignity, he said, depended on his fight for the dignity of other people. Of all the comrades he had met during the struggle, he still regarded Mr Tambo as the most significant. It was not surprising when Sachs's miraculous two-year-old baby was named Oliver. Sachs had just been over 70 when he and his partner Vanessa were blessed with the baby in 2007.

Sachs wrote in his new book: "The lovely little boy that Vanessa and I brought into the world two years ago has to our delight just used the word 'why?' If one day he wants to know why we named him Oliver, why his Daddy has one arm, and why his Daddy is called a Judge, he can find the answers in this book".

When I suggested to him that as a white South African he had a choice to abandon the whole struggle thing and live his normal life, after all, he was not the target of the regime, Sachs dismissed me outright.

As a "comrade", he pointed out; the struggle for him had nothing to do with being white. It was not about what he was doing in the struggle or how to get out for that matter. As far as he was concerned, he was the enemy of the state.

"Some people joined in because they were persecuted and that was the nature of apartheid and in my case I volunteered for the freedom struggle because I wanted to. I needed to have a life that was meaningful and to fight for the dignity of everybody.

"When I was blown up and lost my arm, my story made headlines unlike the stories of my African brothers, some of whom were even killed.

"I asked myself whether should I refuse to give interviews and I decided to use the privilege status given to me to tell the stories of all of us ..."

While this did not always work, Sachs believed the media's attention he frequently attracted did help to bring the attention of the world to the injustices that played out in South Africa.

But when he was appointed judge by President Mandela, Sachs had to teach himself how to draw the line between being a comrade and a legal professional in the powerful court of South Africa.

He was worried that his independence should not be questioned because of him possessing an extensive liberation struggle history and having strong relations with ANC leaders who were now in control of the country.

It is his strife for his independence that made his job as a judge easy and had on many occasions required to rule in cases that involved his former comrades.

"We had many cases involving people that I've been on the trenches with and they would come to court and sometimes the decisions that are supported happened to be in their favour but quite often they were against them."

He didn't feel like betraying a comrade because the ANC fought and demanded a just society and a constitution.

"For me it was a total continuation of my life, but in a totally different setting. I had to cut off all my specific party loyalties and allegiances and now the only allegiance I had was to the constitution ...".

Sachs was among the people involved in a debate on the country's interim constitution before 1996. As he recalls, it is here that a battle for the soul of South Africa was fought.

"There was a total crisis and a complete breakdown," he said. The ANC negotiating team, led by Cyril Ramaphosa, argued for a non-racial set of institutions with one president. The National Party side wanted three presidents, a rotating presidency and another house of parliament that would represent minority parties.

"So there was a total break down. I still remember Ramaphosa saying to us, 'Wait wait! Let them come up with all their different arguments, and then the ANC negotiating team would present its position last!'"

As it was, it took mass demonstrations and intense international pressure to get the parties to agree on a common interim document.

Despite the challenges and without fear of contradiction, for Justice Sachs, the feeling would certainly be that of mission accomplished.