All achievers

Albie Sachs

Constitutional Court of South Africa

It was a car bomb. I collapsed into darkness, but with a sense of euphoria. I’d survived. For many decades, every single day in the freedom struggle, wondering, ‘If they come for me today, if they come for me tomorrow morning, will I be brave? Will I survive?' They’d come for me and I'd got through.

Albert Louis Sachs was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. His father, Emil Solomon Sachs, and his mother, Ray Ginsberg, had both immigrated as children from Lithuania when it was still part of the Russian Empire. Under the Tsar’s rule, Jews throughout the empire were subjected to constant discrimination and frequent outbursts of mob violence, with the open encouragement of the state. Memory of this oppression informed the Sachs family’s view of their new country, where native Africans were denied many of the rights freely granted to European immigrants.

Rebel with a cause. Albie Sachs entered the University of Cape Town at 15. Two years later he enlisted in the struggle for the equal rights of all races in South Africa. (Robben Island Museum Archives)
Albie Sachs entered the University of Cape Town at 15. Two years later, he joined the struggle for racial equality.

Both Emil Sachs and Ray Ginsberg joined South Africa’s communist youth movement in the 1920s. At the time, the Communist Party was one of the few political organizations in South Africa open to members of all races, and the only major multiracial party to advocate racial equality. Emil Sachs, known as Solly, became the leader of South Africa’s Garment Workers Union, and made it a vehicle for promoting the rights of all workers, including black Africans and women, who were shunned by other labor organizations. In 1931, Solly Sachs was expelled from the Communist Party for his independent views, but he remained a highly visible labor leader and was a frequent target of government investigation.

Albert Louis, known from childhood as Albie, was only four years old when World War II began in Europe. South Africa, as part of the British Empire, went to war against Nazi Germany, but the young Albie was aware that many of his white neighbors were sympathetic to the Nazis and their racist ideology. Solly and Ray separated when Albie was small, but Solly’s example of political activism remained a powerful influence on young Albie. On his sixth birthday, with the war raging in Europe and North Africa, he received a card from his father, saying he hoped Albie would grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation.

Albie Sachs with Joseph Nkatlo and Mary Butcher giving the thumbs-up sign while singing "Nkosi Sikilel' iAfrika" at a Defiance Campaign meeting (April 12, 1952). The fist signifies strength in unity and the upright thumb signifies optimism that the struggle will succeed. Sachs and Butcher were among the first white South Africans to join the campaign in Cape Town. (National Library of South Africa: Cape Town; Cape Times Negative Collection)
Albie Sachs with Joseph Nkatlo and Mary Butcher giving the thumbs-up sign while singing “Nkosi Sikilel’ iAfrika” at a Defiance Campaign meeting (April 12, 1952). The fist signifies strength in unity and the upright thumb signifies optimism that the struggle will succeed. Sachs and Butcher were among the first white South Africans to join the campaign in Cape Town. (National Library of South Africa: Cape Town; Cape Times Negative Collection)

While Solly Sachs made his home in Johannesburg, Albie and his mother lived in Cape Town, where his mother was secretary to Moses Kotane, a leader of both the Communist Party and the African National Congress (ANC). Unlike many white South Africans of his generation, Albie Sachs grew up seeing black and white adults interact as equals, and he learned to judge all men and women as individuals. His family’s radical politics, abstention from traditional religion, and close association with black Africans marked Albie as different from his schoolmates. His social isolation reinforced the habit of independent thinking that has characterized his entire life.

The National Party’s electoral victory in the South African election of 1948 led to the new policy, known as apartheid (“apartness” in Afrikaans). Massive relocations expelled black Africans, Asians and people of mixed race from areas newly designated as “white only.” Schools and public places were strictly segregated and harsh penalties were imposed for interracial relationships. To Albie Sachs and his family, these measures were repugnant and they opposed them vigorously.

Albie Sachs graduated from secondary school at 15, and entered the University of Cape Town, where he soon fell in with a group of like-minded students known as the Modern Youth Society, dedicated to free thought, progressive politics and an egalitarian, multiracial society. In 1952, at age 17, he joined a campaign of civil disobedience against apartheid, the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. He was arrested for sitting in an area of the General Post Office reserved for non-whites. He was released when the judge learned his age, but it would not be his last run-in with the law.

Albie Sachs stand up for freedom. The Congress of the People meets at Kliptown in 1955 to adopt the Freedom Charter, calling for a mulitracial democracy in South Africa. (Robben Island Museum Archives)
21-year-old attorney Albie Sachs stands up for freedom. The Congress of the People meets at Kliptown in 1955 to adopt the Freedom Charter, calling for a mulitracial democracy in South Africa. (Robben Island Museum Archives)

The government had banned the Communist Party and undertook to purge the country’s unions of communists and ex-communists. Solly Sachs was ordered by the government to resign from leadership of the Garment Workers. When he refused, he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to a year’s hard labor. While the sentence was suspended, the elder Sachs fled to England, where he remained for the rest of his life.

In Cape Town, Albie Sachs graduated with a law degree and, at age 21, took up the practice of law. South Africa had retained many of the forms of the British legal system, but the apartheid regime was systematically eliminating the civil liberties of non-whites and political dissidents. Many of his clients faced the death penalty. Sachs defended mostly black clients, along with others accused of resisting apartheid and the repressive new state security laws. Even when the law was on his side, Sachs found himself continually fighting the unthinking racism of prosecutors, judges and jurors. Outside the courtroom, he was subject to constant surveillance and harassment, and his office was ransacked by state security agents.

Exiles in love. Recently released from prison in South Africa, Albie Sachs and Stephanie Kemp found refuge in the United Kingdom. (Courtesy of Albie Sachs)
Recently released from prison in South Africa, Sachs and Stephanie Kemp found refuge in the United Kingdom.

In 1960, South Africa became a republic and severed its colonial ties with Britain. The African National Congress and other opposition groups were outlawed. While the underground ANC took up an armed struggle against the government, Sachs continued his fight for freedom in the nation’s courts. In 1963, Albie Sachs was arrested, under a new law, permitting the government to detain political prisoners for 90 days without filing actual charges. Sachs spent the 90 days in solitary confinement, without contact with the outside world. When he was released after 90 days, he was immediately arrested again, without explanation, and returned to solitary. Another two-and-a-half months passed before he was released again. He was placed under a banning order, forbidding him from writing for publication, speaking in public, or meeting socially with more than one person at a time.

Sachs was shaken by his experience, and uncertain what course to take. Meanwhile, he had fallen in love with one of his clients, a political activist named Stephanie Kemp. Before she was sentenced to prison, she warned Sachs that he too would be arrested again. The state had enacted a 180-Day Law, permitting longer periods of detention without trial, and two years after his first detention, Sachs was back in jail. This time he was handed over to a notoriously brutal officer of the state security forces and subjected to relentless interrogation, deprived of sleep for days on end, and asked to inform on other opponents of the regime.

Sachs was eventually released, along with other prisoners, but he was emotionally scarred by his ordeal. After Stephanie Kemp was released from prison, the pair decided to marry. Unwilling to risk another imprisonment, Sachs applied for permission to leave South Africa. It was granted, on condition that he never return. In 1966, Sachs moved to England, where Kemp soon joined him. They were married, settled in London, and had two sons.

The 1985 conference of the African National Congress in Kabwe, Zambia. Albie Sachs argued successfully for the adoption of a Code of Conduct, guaranteeing respect for all human rights and for the humane treatment of enemy prisoners. (Robben Island Museum Archives)
The 1985 conference of the African National Congress in Zambia. Albie Sachs argued successfully for the adoption of a Code of Conduct, guaranteeing respect for all human rights and for humane treatment of enemy prisoners.

In London, Sachs published an account of his incarceration, The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs. The book was widely read and was adapted into a play, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. A film version appeared on British television in 1981. Sachs received a scholarship to undertake doctoral studies at the University of Sussex. His doctoral thesis formed the basis of his 1974 book, Justice in South Africa. In the book, he explored the contradictions between the fundamental principles of the South African legal system and their betrayal in practice. He also examined traditional African concepts of justice and considered their possible application in a free South Africa of the future. Sachs’s next book, Sexism and the Law, was a groundbreaking study of historic discrimination against women in the legal system.

While Sachs took a teaching post at the University of Southampton, England, he continued to follow events in South Africa closely. He undertook international speaking tours on behalf of the ANC and became a well-known face of the South African opposition in exile. Despite his success as an author and scholar, Sachs was frustrated with life in England. He missed Africa and longed to play a more active role in the liberation struggle.

April 7, 1988: A grievously injured Albie Sachs struggles to raise himself from the street after the detonation of a car bomb planted by South African agents. He survived the attack, but his shattered right arm could not be saved and he lost the sight in his injured eye. (Photo by Mozambique Information Agency, AIM.)
April 7, 1988: A grievously injured Albie Sachs struggles to raise himself from the street after the detonation of a massive car bomb in Mozambique planted by South African agents. He barely survived the brutal attack, but his shattered right arm could not be saved, and he lost the sight in his injured eye. (Mozambique Information Agency)

In 1975, when a black-led revolution overthrew Portuguese colonial rule in the Southern African country of Mozambique, Sachs went there to see the new multiracial society at first hand. The atmosphere of a newly liberated African country was exhilarating for Sachs, who felt more at home in Mozambique than he ever had in England. In 1977, his marriage came to an end. While Stephanie and their sons remained in England, Sachs decided to settle in Africa. After 11 years in England, he would spend the next 11 in Mozambique. He soon learned the Portuguese language and became a professor of law at Eduardo Mondlane University in the capital, Maputo.

Recuperating in a London hospital. A month after the attempt on his life in Mozambique, Albie Sachs receives a visit from an old friend and comrade, Wolfie Kodesh. (Courtesy of Albie Sachs)
Recuperating in a London hospital. A month after the attempt on his life in Mozambique, Albie Sachs receives a visit from an old friend and comrade, Wolfie Kodesh. Albie Sachs lost his right arm and the sight in one eye.

Other members of the South African National Congress gathered in Mozambique and in neighboring Tanzania. Sachs formed a close working relationship with Oliver Tambo, President of the African National Congress. The South African government, increasingly hampered by international sanctions against its racist policies, lashed out at its enemies. It funded an armed rebellion against the government of Mozambique and sent agents abroad to assassinate ANC members in Africa and Europe.

ANC President Oliver Tambo and Deputy President Nelson Mandela sing the party's anthem at a rally in Johannesburg, following Mandela's release from prison and Tambo's return from 30 years of exile. (© Reuters/CORBIS)
ANC President Oliver Tambo and Deputy President Nelson Mandela sing the party’s anthem at a rally in Johannesburg, following Mandela’s release from prison and Tambo’s return from 30 years of exile. (Corbis)

On April 7, 1988, when Albie Sachs unlocked his parked car in Maputo, a bomb planted by the South African security services exploded. The explosion killed a passerby and left Sachs gravely wounded. Riddled with shrapnel, his ribs broken, his eardrums punctured, Sachs was rushed to the hospital. Doctors labored for seven hours to save his life. Sachs survived, but he had lost his right arm and the sight in one eye. Long months of painful rehabilitation lay ahead, but Sachs drew comfort from the thought that his enemies had seized their best chance to kill him and had failed. He told the story of his recovery from his injuries in his 1991 book, Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter.

Albie Sachs is sworn in as a Justice of the Constitutional Court at the court's opening ceremony in Johannesburg, February 14, 1995. Sachs lost his right arm to a car bomb planted by agents of South Africa's white nationalist government in 1988. (PHILIP LITTLETON/AFP/Getty Images)
Albie Sachs is sworn in as a Justice of the Constitutional Court at the Court’s opening ceremony in Johannesburg, February 14, 1995. Sachs lost his right arm to a car bomb planted by agents of South Africa’s white nationalist government in 1988. (Philip Littleton/Getty Images)

Confident that change was coming to South Africa, Sachs concentrated on planning South Africa’s transition to multiracial democracy, and drawing up principles for a new constitution. In 1990, the South African government yielded to international pressure and recognized the ANC and other opposition groups as legal organizations. President De Klerk released ANC activist Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment, and all parties began the process of negotiating a democratic transition. After 24 years of exile, Albie Sachs returned to South Africa and was reunited with his mother. His friend Oliver Tambo had suffered a debilitating stroke, and Nelson Mandela now took the leadership of the ANC, with the mineworkers’ leader Cyril Ramaphosa conducting negotiations with the South African government. Albie Sachs was appointed to the Constitutional Committee, charged with drafting a charter for a new non-racial state. Sachs became a persuasive advocate for the inclusion of a Bill of Rights and an independent judiciary in the new constitution. Sachs had seen the revolutionary regime of Mozambique embroiled in civil war and was determined that the new South Africa would allow the peaceful competition of opposing political parties. He also argued that the constitution should identify rights to housing, water, health care and a clean environment.

Justice Albie Sachs addresses the Academy delegates and members during the 2009 International Achievement Summit in Cape Town, South Africa. (© Academy of Achievement)
Justice Sachs addresses Academy delegates during the 2009 International Achievement Summit in Cape Town.

South Africa’s first national multiracial elections were held in 1994. Nelson Mandela was elected president, with a ruling majority for the ANC in the nation’s parliament. The new constitution, with the broadly inclusive Bill of Rights that Sachs had proposed, was adopted by the new parliament, with the support of parties across the political spectrum, including supporters of the old regime. Nelson Mandela appointed Albie Sachs to one of the 11 seats on the country’s new Constitutional Court. In his 15 years on the Court, Sachs helped place South African justice in the forefront of the legal recognition of human rights, winning praise from fellow jurists all over the free world. The Court abolished the death penalty and overturned laws criminalizing homosexuality. One of the Court’s most important rulings placed Sachs in opposition to some former comrades in the ANC. Mandela’s successor as president, Thabo Mbeki, held eccentric views on the subject of AIDS transmission. He and his health minister had blocked the distribution of drugs that prevent transmission of HIV from pregnant women to their children. In 2002, the Court ruled against the government and ordered it to provide the drugs, which the manufacturer had made freely available. In 2005, Sachs wrote the opinion in the landmark decision Home Affairs v. Fourie, legalizing same-sex marriage in South Africa. Sachs ruled that the previous ban on gay marriage violated guarantees of equal rights explicitly stated in the country’s constitution.

Desmond Tutu presents the Academy's Golden Plate award to Albie Sachs of South Africa's Constitutional Court.
Desmond Tutu presents the Academy’s Golden Plate Award to Albie Sachs of South Africa’s Constitutional Court.

Sachs was also closely involved with the development of the new Constitutional Court building. The Court sits on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, site of the Old Fort Prison, now a museum, where political prisoners including Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi had once been held. The Court building has won international acclaim for the seamless integration of murals, sculpture, tapestries and mosaics into its interior. As a permanent exhibition of the creativity of South Africa’s people, it is a source of particular pride to Justice Sachs.

Albie Sachs, his wife Vanessa September and their son Oliver in Clifton, Cape Town, 2010. (Photo by Steven Gordon)
Albie Sachs, his wife, Vanessa September, and their son, Oliver, in Clifton, Cape Town, 2010. (Steven Gordon)

Albie Sachs has found happiness in his private life as well. In 2006 he married urban architect Vanessa September. In his 70s, Sachs became a father again, with the birth of their son, Oliver. In 2009, his appointment to the Court expired. Albie Sachs continues to write and to speak around the world, sharing the South African experience of healing a divided society.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2009

Albie Sachs began a lifetime of human rights activism as a 17-year-old law student at the University of Cape Town, when he first took part in a civil disobedience campaign against apartheid. As a young attorney, he defended others charged under racist statutes and repressive security laws. After two spells of solitary confinement without trial, he fled the country.

He spent the next 22 years in exile in the United Kingdom and Mozambique. In 1988, a car bomb planted by South African agents cost him an arm and the sight in one eye. He devoted the next years to preparing a new democratic constitution for South Africa. After South Africa’s democratic elections of 1994, President Nelson Mandela appointed Sachs to serve as a justice on the newly established Constitutional Court.

Justice Sachs wrote the Court’s unanimous opinion in the landmark 2005 decision legalizing same-sex marriage in South Africa. Between sessions, he travels the world, sharing the South African experience of healing a divided society.

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You were very young when you began practicing law in South Africa in the 1950s. What was it like when you started out?

Albie Sachs: I was still 21 at the time and we could win cases then.  There was space in the law courts.  And if we lost a case, we would go on appeal.  I got some very good training from experienced attorneys who had been doing cases like this for many years. I enjoyed the cut-and-thrust when I would walk down into the high court with my gown on the little mosaic floors.  Bum, bum, bum, I’d feel my gown flying.  I felt kind of proud, you know, special. You’d go into court, the first year was terrifying.  Terrifying.  The judge would fire a question at you, “But what about this case?” Or that book, or this rule of law, rule of court or that statute.  It never happened, but I was terrified.  After one year I just forgot that fear completely and I enjoyed cross-examining. I enjoyed arguing with the judges. I enjoyed the appeals.

Albie Sachs, shortly after his admission to the Cape Town bar, circa 1957. (Courtesy of Albie Sachs)
22-year-old Albie Sachs, shortly after his admission to the Cape Town bar, circa 1957. (Courtesy of Albie Sachs)

You’ve said that you encountered what you call “apartheid linguistics” in the courtroom.

Keys to success — Perseverance

Albie Sachs: It was so tough being called an advocate, a lawyer, an attorney in an apartheid court, even with decent judges. The judges were white, the prosecution was white, the lawyers were white, the accused were frequently black. So it was really, as Mandela once said, “I should get equal justice, but I feel I’m a black man in a white man’s court. I shouldn’t feel that.” Even outside of the obvious racism in many of the laws, there were racist assumptions in the court that were so taxing and enervating. The judge would say to an African woman twice my age, “And, Rosie, what did you see next?” He might say it in a very kindly voice. I couldn’t call her Rosie. She was Mrs. Shabalala. But if I called her Mrs. Shabalala after the judge had called her Rosie, it’s like I’m giving him a little punch, and that could be bad for my client. The judge and the prosecution would speak about “five Bantus,” “five natives.” These weren’t natives, these were people. Five men, five men and women. But if I challenged the use of language, then it was like I was having a go at them and my client could suffer. So even in the very simple way you expressed yourself, you either compromised with derogatory or undignified terminology, or you became contestational on a peripheral issue that didn’t deal with the guts of the matter and your client could suffer as a result. It cost so much psychological energy to find ways of avoiding that, neither the one or the other. You just say, “Uh huh,” you know, to the witness, not using either term. The racism in that sense impregnated everything about the court from the beginning to the end.

Things took a turn for the worse in the 1960s. What was that like?

From 1960 onwards it was dreadful — 1960, the year of the massacre at Sharpeville, 69 people shot dead, mostly in their back. The ANC — African National Congress — banned completely, the leaders banned, the newspapers banned, the Pan-Africanist Congress banned. The Communist Party had been banned for ten years already. Everything driven underground, impossible state of emergency. And then things became much, much grimmer. An attempt was made in 1961 by Nelson Mandela to call for a national convention to negotiate a new constitution for South Africa. He came from the underground to do it. It was just ignored completely. The government, to show its force, paraded with armored cars and airplanes, like to say, “We are not going to change. White supremacy forever in South Africa. We will have a place for some traditional black leaders in the rural areas. They can do things in their own way. They must never dream of having a vote and being equal with the rest of us.” It was a very grim period. The ANC then decided, “We’ve said, ‘Nonviolence, nonviolence, nonviolence’ forever. Where has it got us? Things are worse now than they were even 40 years ago.” And the first bombs went off. Now Nelson Mandela is the Commander-in-Chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC — “Spear of the Nation.” And then became the repression, the 90-Day Law, the Sabotage Act, the law being turned into an instrument of total repression, detention without trial.

Nelson Mandela in the law office of Mandela and Tambo in Johannesburg, 1952. Mandela would become South Africa's first black president after surviving 27 years of imprisonment. (Getty Images)
1952: Nelson Mandela in the law office of Mandela and Tambo in Johannesburg. Mandela would become an apartheid revolutionary and South Africa’s first black president in 1994 after surviving 27 years of imprisonment. Nelson Mandela appointed Albie Sachs to one of the eleven seats on the country’s new Constitutional Court. In his 15 years on the Court, Sachs helped place South African justice in the forefront of the legal recognition of human rights, winning praise from fellow jurists all over the free world. Mandela went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the 1960s the security police were empowered with the 90-Day Law you mentioned. What was your experience with the 90-Day Law?

Albie Sachs: The repression from 1962-63 onwards changed everything in the courts as far as political cases were concerned.  You still had very erudite judges who had all the punctilio of legal form in the higher courts, but the law was transformed now into an instrument of oppression. You could be plucked out of your home, your work, walking in streets, in my case going into my office, at the whim of a senior police officer.  No charge. Locked up in solitary confinement, no knowledge of why you’ve been locked up at all. No contact with lawyers, no contact with families, just you, yourself, alone in a little concrete cube.

I saw my clients being picked up one by one, one after the other, and had a most terrible experience of somebody who came to my office and she said, “My name is Beauty Solwandle. I’m married to Looksmart Solwandle.” And I’m getting all tense because I know she’s gonna ask me that he’s been detained under the 90-Day Law. And there’s nothing I can do. The law gave us no scope. There was no habeas corpus, there was no remedy and I’m trying to say — and she’s telling me her story slowly, “…and he was in this police cell and he was taken to Pretoria.” And I want to say, “Mrs. Solwandle, there’s nothing…” And she said, “And I got the news yesterday that he was found hanged in his cell.” He was the first political detainee — sadly the first of many, many in South Africa — to be killed under torture. And I said, “Well, at least we must try and get a post-mortem, an investigation.” And we got lawyers to do that. And something came out and the magistrate just accepted everything from the police. All the bruising on his body, he found excuses for that. And we didn’t get very far.

Keys to success — Perseverance

But not long afterwards I, myself, was in a cell on my own.  I remember walking around in this little concrete space.  The door slammed.  The echo that’s slamming in my ear and so, this is what it’s like, this moment you’re dreaming of.  You’re in the freedom struggle, and you’re going to be locked up, and will you be brave and what’ll it be like?  And I’m walking around, and I’m singing and I’m whistling, and I’m trying to keep up my courage.  There’s a mat on the floor, there’s a little toilet in there with a wire thing that you can pull.  And five minutes, ten minutes, I don’t have a watch, 20 minutes. The time goes so slowly. It’s just you, your toes, the wall, your toes, the wall, looking at what to do, no one to speak to, nothing to do, nothing to occupy yourself.  It was far worse than I’ve ever imagined, far, far, far worse.  I thought you just had to be brave.  You bared your chest.  Let the enemy come.  Let them do their damnedest. And in a way, you’re fighting your own loneliness, your own eagerness to have someone to talk to.