Albie Sachs: ‘Roses and lilies will grow out of my arm’

Former Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs says it was poetry that made him join the struggle. Picture: Alaister Russell

Sachs is a gentle soul, with a voice that can calm even the fieriest headed being – he captures peace.

Judge Sachs – let me first say it is humbling and indeed wonderful to be in your presence.

He smiles.

“Please call me Albie or Judge Albie…”

He had asked me many times when setting up the interview to refer to him as “Albie” – but I find it difficult to adhere. How can I refer to this remarkable human on a first name basis?

We meet the former Constitutional and High Court judge and struggle veteran at his home on a sunny Cape Town day in August.

Judge Sachs, ahem, Judge Albie, offers impeccable directions to his beachy abode … which is undoubtedly suited to him.

We sit, look ahead and there is the vast ocean… with the glistening sun’s rays bouncing off the blue waters.

I remark about how lovely his home his and he replies: “Well, I can’t take credit for the view.”

He, however, points out that the house was designed by his wife Vanessa and insists that I etch this fact in his profile

He would later in the interview ask if I know what “LLL” is?

“Late, life, love,” he quietly giggles.

Sachs is a gentle soul, with a voice that can calm even the fieriest headed being – he captures peace.

“I grew up in Clifton. My mother was the typist for Moses Kotane who was then the general secretary of the Communist Party. And, he was my mum’s boss.

“She would say ‘tidy up, tidy up, uncle Moses is coming!’. So I grew up in that sense, in an anti-racist household. It was also a time when there were refugees coming to Cape Town from Germany – so I went to a kindergarten that was run by somebody we called an ‘aunty’, whose husband had died in a concentration camp. So I grew up also in an internationalist family.

“It was during World War 2, that there was a great fight against Nazism and fascism – and those events shaped my consciousness from very early on.”

He then relates that he attended a school by the name of Sachs.

“So I was Sachs from Sachs,” he smirks.

He goes on to say that he was a debater in school – and thought that when he reached tertiary, that would be where all the “fascinating debates would be”.

“And I found out that there wasn’t so much at UCT [University of Cape Town]. We had some very good professors and some not so good. But the idea of being in the hive of discussion and activity … I didn’t find very much of that.”

It was in his second year of university that he became politically active and joined the Defiance and Unjust Laws Campaign.

“That marked my life from then onwards, against racism and for a new democratic South Africa.”

I asked what sparked his journey – and Sachs says he hated the idea that he would automatically follow in his parent’s footsteps – besides growing up in a socially aware home.

“I rejected that. I met a young crowd in university. It was called the Modern Youth Society who were very, very active politically.

“The actual trigger, interestingly, was attending a lecture by the Afrikaans poet Uys Krige on a Spanish writer. And I didn’t even know they had writers in Spain… I thought they had bull fights.”

The writer was executed by fascists in Spain, he goes on to explain.

“What that experience did for me was that I loved poetry – but it was always very intimate, personal and inward. But that lecture linked up poetry – the longings of the soul if you like – with big public events.’

Krige the next week spoke of Pablo Neruda – and it was “love and revolution”.

“Somehow, it was that experience that in sense that impelled me into politics.”

People would ask him years later  about why he would bring the theme of culture into politics – but Sachs says it was the other way around.

He was soon banned and restricted when practising as an advocate at the Bar in Cape Town.

“I’m thrown into solitary confinement and after 168 days I was released … and I ran to the sea and threw myself into the water, feeling fantastic. But something inside me was crushed. You never get over solitary confinement.”

Two years later, he was again locked up for his struggle activities – and this time was tortured by the form of sleep deprivation.

He eventually decided to leave and go into exile.

“I spent 11 years in the UK and did a PhD at the University of Sussex, examining the strange institution of the South African judiciary. It was so erudite to use the language of freedom and justice, and on the other hand, you were hanging over a hundred people every year and compelling people to carry passes?

“My doctorate was based on the contradictions in that legal system. I never ever imagined that one day I would be a judge.”

Sachs says he then moved to Mozambique – a newly independent country.

“I was unhappy in England, even when I was unhappy. In Mozambique, I was back in Africa. I was part of building this newly independent country.

“And then. I was blown up.”

In that moment, in a bomb by South African security agents, he lost his right arm and sight in his one eye – but they didn’t get him, he states.

“I felt joyous. I survived that moment that every freedom fighter is fighting for. They came for me and I survived. Since that day, till today – I felt that sense of it, more than survival but joy.

“That bomb and surviving it blew away the heavy unhappiness that had come from the interrogations and sleep deprivations and exile.”

In 1990 the judge was back on South African soil with the total conviction that his country would get better.

“I got very involved in the negotiations process on the constitutional committee of the ANC and the national executive.”

It lasted six years, accompanied by breakdowns and rolling mass action.

“We had massacres. Chris Hani was assassinated. But we got it. We kept our eyes on the goal. And we got what was an admirable constitution for the world.”

He then made himself available to be a judge and was appointed by then president Nelson Mandela to be a justice of the Constitutional Court.

“It was 15 amazing, wonderful years of the court – defending the values that people had fought for.”

The court, built in a former prison, was a reminder of “never again”, he says.

And rightly so, when one of the men who placed the bomb in his car was caught – but Sachs drew no vengeance.

At the time, in hospital he had said that if he healed – so would South Africa. And to the man that blew him up he said: “Roses and lilies will grow out of my arm.”

Today he says: “I put out my hand, and we talk and talk. I almost fainted, but I felt liberated after that.”

Any cases that stick out in your mind?

“I was often asked, what is your most important case? – And looking on right now, they were all important. You immerse yourself completely in the case that you are doing.”

Sachs’ first case dealt with capital punishment.

“It was huge – and our court declared that capital punishment violated the entire core set of values in our constitution. The state cold-bloodedly taking the life of another doesn’t encourage respect for human life.

“The very last case, we dealt with a poor community a few kilometres from the court – saying that the concrete pit latrines that they had should be replaced by ‘VIPs’ – ‘Ventilated Improved Pit Latrines’.

“And I thought, only in South Africa could people come to the highest court in the land, to say as a matter of human dignity – you are entitled to better latrines.

“In the end, we didn’t give judgment in their favour – but there were commitments from government to speed up the housing programme. And we felt it didn’t make sense to spend a lot of money for a short period of time on these concrete pit latrines.”

He, however, felt moved by the fact that the court was open to the constitutional claims of people living in very poor conditions who were as important to the wealthy and powerful and top government people.

Sachs has been married twice.

“I was married for a number of years to Stephanie, who was in the resistance. We had two beautiful sons together. They both grew up in exile and came to South Africa in their early 20s.

“Stephanie and I got divorced … and sometime later I met Vanessa September, and we have been married for a number of years.

“We have a son called Oliver who is 9, very bright and a child of the new South Africa.”

It is here that “LLL” comes up.

“It has been very nice to have had something called ‘LLL’ – do you know what that stands for? Late Life Love,” he says.

“Vanessa left school in Standard 9 – and after we got together she went back to high school and then studied architecture. She designed the house that you are sitting in right now.

“We have this wonderful, wonderful home.”

“I am very proud of South Africa’s democracy.”

“We are an open society. We are still not an equal society but we are open. People speak their minds and the vote matters. Our institutions are strong and the courts are doing extraordinary work. The Auditor-General has shown independence over decades – the Public Protector has been very strong and so, I think our democracy is deeply implanted.

“I am proud of our generation. We have got a country. This is the country I was fighting for – but not the society I was fighting for – we have got to use the country to get the society.”

Sachs on racism today

“I think South Africa has made huge advances. Compared to where we were it’s another country completely – and what has happened earlier this year isn’t an upsurge of racism. It was an exposure of the racism particularly in social media – and that it’s unacceptable … that we mustn’t tolerate it.”

And on criminalising racism?

“Whether or not criminal law is the best response, I would need a lot of persuasion that is the best way of dealing with the racism – I think the Equality Courts have a very big role to play. Their main emphasis is not so much on punishment but on education and getting people to introspect and think about what they are saying or doing, and what it means to others.”

On meeting Mandela

“My first contact with Mandela came about through the defiance campaign. I had never heard of him. He was volunteer number one … I was volunteer number 10 344,” he chuckles.

“And there was only one good thing that apartheid created and that was anti-apartheid…”

In that sense it was anti-apartheid that created the links for a free, democratic society – it was the connection of Madiba, who grew up in rural Transkei, and Albie who grew up near the beach in Cape Town.

“We would have never have met. But we became comrades…”

– Read more in this series on Judge Albie Sachs and his view on the youth, the Public Protector and the Nkandla judgment next week.

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