What constitutes greatness?

2011-12-23 00:00

FORMER Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs believes firmly in the healing power of humour. Not only did it help him to recover from the loss of one of his arms and the sight in one eye following a bomb blast, but he believes it’s a good thing that as a society we are now able to laugh at ourselves.

“One of the things I find very encouraging is that one of our biggest growth industries is stand-up comedy. We make jokes about our society. It’s very healthy,” he says.

Humour also infects the pages of The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter. The book, which was first published in 1990, has been re-released by Souvenir Press as part of its Independent Voices series, and includes a new introduction by Professor Njabulo S. Ndebele and an afterward and epilogue in which Sachs brings readers up to date with his life — both professionally and personally.

Sachs believes that writing The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter was as important to his recovery as the medication and therapy he received after South African security agents blew up his car in Maputo on April 7, 1988.

“It’s a very personal, raw book, which was written in moments of joy at surviving [the bomb blast],” the author recalls. “When I picked it up again for this project, I realised I had forgotten quite a lot of things that were there. It felt a little bit like reading a book by someone else, rather than looking back at my own book.

“The book is very joyous. I don’t like re-reading my prison memoirs [The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs which was published in Britain when he was a banned writer in South Africa and later adapted by David Edgar for the stage in 1979] because they take me to a dark place.

“This book is different. It’s when I started living again. There was something so liberating about surviving the explosion and learning to do all the things you first learnt as a child all over again. I was convinced that if I got better then my country would too.”

Another “treatment” which Sachs believes helped him to recover was provided by Oliver Tambo, the then leader of the ANC, who asked him and Kader Asmal to begin working on a Bill of Rights.

“I felt it was of enormous historical significance to jot down words and make those first steps in an irreversible journey to creating a constitution,” Sachs said. “I sat down with a clean piece of paper — there were no copies of any other documents. I felt that the words had to come from the heart. The words needed to proclaim themselves. I jotted down a whole series of rights and then checked them against the universal Bill of Rights, and a lot of those we’d written down were the same.

“I believe it was a task given to me to help me with my healing. We would sit at the table and Kader didn’t smoke in his house in Dublin for the whole weekend. He would go into the rain to have his puffs because my eyes hurt when he smoked.”

In 1994 former president Nelson Mandela appointed Sachs to serve on the Constitutional Court, a role he undertook for 15 years. Asked to describe that period of his life, he says: “In many ways I feel it was like an extreme sport ... we had to use our intelligence to the maximum, but not just our intelligence. It was physically exhausting as well because we would work late into the night, drawing on our humour, sympathy, empathy and debating cases with colleagues. It was intellectually and morally stimulating.”

During his time on the bench Sachs’s rulings included declaring capital punishment a violation of the right to life — a personal triumph given that many of the cases he undertook as a young lawyer were those of people facing the death penalty — and making it unconstitutional to prevent gay and lesbian people from marrying.

The court also backed Aids campaigners in 2002, by insisting that the government had a duty to provide HIV-positive pregnant women with drugs to reduce the risk of transmission to their newborn babies.

“Being a Constitutional Court judge made me realise that I was defending basic rights in ways I’d never imagined,” he said. “When judgment was being handed down in the Nevirapine case, there was total silence when the decision was read out, but as we filed out, the cheering broke out. I think it is extraordinary that we have a court that respects human dignity and am proud that I was a member of the court that upheld those rights.”

He also believes the court will be the right place to hear any legal challenges to the contentious Protection of State Information Bill, which was passed recently despite opposition from the Democratic Alliance, Cope, media houses, a coalition of 400 civil rights groups, and the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu).

In September this year, when he delivered the Imam Abdullah Haron Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, Sachs said: “People are speaking about the question of press freedom. We have won the right to know and speak our minds, and I can’t see South Africans easily giving up the right to know what’s going on and speak their minds.”

Now retired from the bench, Sachs is working on a screenplay, and while he refuses to divulge what his story is about, he admits he’s loving the challenge of tackling an entirely new genre.

He’s also recording an oral history for the Constitutional Court which will tell visitors how it was established and impart some of the memories of the country’s first judges, as well as how South Africa got its first constitution.

But perhaps his favourite job is being a dad to Oliver, his five-year-old son with his wife of five years, Vanessa September. “Being the father of a young child brings home to me the enormity of the change in our country. It blots out how it was. The whole character of the country has changed. We are living in a different country and we’re the ones who helped bring about that change,” he says.


• The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter is published by Souvenir Press. ISBN 9780285640207


ALBIE Sachs was born in Johannesburg in 1935. His father, Emil Solomon (Solly) Sachs, and his mother, Ray, were both involved in the Communist Party and trade unionism.

His career in human rights activism started in 1952 when, as a 17-year-old second-year law student at the University of Cape Town, he took part in the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. Three years later, he attended the Congress of the People at Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was adopted.

Sachs began his practice as an advocate at the Cape Bar when he was 21, and most of his work involved defending people charged under apartheid’s racist statutes and repressive security laws.

As a result of his work, he was raided by the security police, subjected to banning orders restricting his movement and was placed in solitary confinement for 168 days without trial. He eventually went into exile in 1966.

Sachs spent 11 years studying and teaching law in England, and a further 11 years in Mozambique working as a law professor and legal researcher.

As a member of the Constitutional Committee and the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC, he played an active role in the negotiations which led to South Africa becoming a constitutional democracy.

Right: The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter by Albie Sachs.

And, after the first democratic election in 1994, he was appointed by then president Nelson Mandela to serve on the newly established Constitutional Court, serving for 15 years.

In addition to his legal work, he was involved with the development of the Constitutional Court building and its art collection and has also authored several books, including Stephanie on Trial, The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law and Island in Chains with Indres Naidoo. — sahistory.org.za

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