One day passes, and another day and another day and another day, and you never know when it’s going to end. You get your food. I’d be allowed out to enter a little yard for exercise. I would run round and round, favoring my right leg, and then round and round the other way favoring my left leg, and I would sing and I would whistle, and I tried to keep up my courage. And one day I hear whistling, and I can’t believe it, because it’s not just the general noise. Prison is noisy.
People screaming, screaming, shouting, doors being slammed, everybody shouting, and I hear whistling. And I whistle back, and then I hear the whistling coming and I tried out the ANC freedom songs and there was no response. And I’m wondering, “Who is it? Somebody else in solitary confinement?” And we made a connection, and it was the “Going Home” theme from the Dvorák “New World” Symphony. (Whistles.) And I hear from far away in the prison. (Whistles.) I don’t even know who it is. I don’t even know who it is. And this was a wonderful form of contact. And then I would do exercises as part of my regime, and I’m in the middle of trying to do a hundred press-ups and I hear the whistling, and I say, “No, I’m only up to 75. Please wait, wait, wait. Can’t you wait?” And then we had to kind of establish a time during the day where we would be ready for the whistling. And I never found out who it was.
Albie Sachs: Not until I came out of prison. That was months later. Her name was Dorothy. She had seen me once in exercise and she thought, “Gee, Albie is so brave.” She’d heard my name and I saw her sitting there and I thought, “Gee, that woman, whoever she is, she’s so brave.” We each thought the other was brave. I was crying inside. I was wretched. And our lives actually met up with — years later when I went into exile into England. She was there. She came there and we spoke and she married an Englishman. And years later, after I was blown up, and my like second exile in England, she got in touch with me. And when I set up the South African Constitution Study Center to prepare for a new constitution, I asked her to be my assistant. She said, “Albie, no. I’m too old.” And so I said, “No, Dorothy, you must.” And she did. And she came back to South Africa when I went back to South Africa afterwards.
What kind of relationship did you develop with the guards while you were detained?
Albie Sachs: I was very worried about myself. I thought, “I don’t hate them. If I’m a serious freedom fighter, I should hate them.” But I just saw Flicky, a guy doing his job as he saw it. “Advocate Sachs…” They called me “advocate,” like attorney. “Do you mind if I tell you a joke?” I was dying to have someone speak to me. “No, no. Go ahead.” “There was this child who swallowed a little coin and his mother said, ‘We must take him to the doctor,’ and his father said, ‘No, no, no. We must take him to the lawyer. He’ll get the money out of him much quicker.’ Do you mind if I tell you that joke?” And, you know, it was such a weird situation, that he’s still respecting me as a policeman, he’s respecting me because I’m a lawyer and treating me as a human being. He wasn’t from the security police. And I couldn’t imagine killing him or hating him. I could imagine living in the country with someone like him, who is kind of all right, you know, on a one-to-one basis. Maybe with the black prisoners he was much harsher, but I didn’t feel that. He didn’t have that edge. And when occasionally he would speak about…there was a black constable and Flicky would say to this constable, but not in a bullying way, “Fetch some water for the boss.” So I was the boss. I’m in prison as an enemy of the state trying to overthrow the state, but I was called the boss. You know, the racism just went everywhere.
At times it was quite painful that your whiteness, whether you liked it or not, followed you all the way through. Even when I was blown up afterwards, my white body counted for more than the bodies of black people who were blown up, who were tortured far more severely than I was tortured. The world, the press, the media, controlled by people — white themselves — seeing the world through white eyes. Not even maliciously, just automatically. That’s their standpoint, their point of reference. And so my amputation, my body counted for something. And then I had to think, “Well, what do I do about it?” And I said, “Well, it gives me access. It gives me a chance to speak.” The New York Times had a full page spread, “Broken But Unbroken,” with a lovely picture. At least I can be like an ambassador for all the others whose voices aren’t heard. I must use this space and opportunities that they’ve got, even if they come with a privilege, to fight for justice in our country. But at times it was painful, even in prison.
I might say I discovered years later, after democracy was beginning to come to South Africa, and I was interviewed by Anthony Lewis, a columnist for The New York Times, about my attitude to the white guards and the others, and I explained that I felt I ought to be more angry than I was. And I said, “There’s something wrong with me.” He said, “You know, I’ve just spoken to Nelson Mandela. He said the same thing. And I’ve spoken to Walter Sisulu — said the same thing — and Ahmed Kathrada, who said the same thing.” And I realized I belonged to a culture, a generation based on the values of the Freedom Charter. We were fighting against a system, a system of injustice. We weren’t fighting against a race. We were fighting for a better country, a better society. That system, which had not only oppressed and imprisoned black people in terms of their hopes and their possibilities, but imprisoned whites in fear and narrowness and inwardness and arrogance and greed. That’s what liberation meant. That’s what emancipation meant.
How did you survive your detention?
Albie Sachs: I barely survived the 90-Day detention. It was the 90-Day Law. You could be locked up for 90 days, and somebody comes to the little cell that I was in and gives me back my tie and my shoelaces and my watch. I had been without a watch for 90 days. I used to hear the City Hall clock chiming and that would give me the hours. To this day when I hear that City Hall clock chiming, I get an uneasy feeling. And on Sundays I would hear the bells, the carillon playing, and I can’t get pure pleasure from that. I get a little bit cold. I feel a sense of shock. This beautiful thing of bells playing on a Sunday, joyous bells, and I start shivering. And now I get my watch back and I go down the stairs and the station commander meets me. I go to his office and he says some nice things to me. And I get a phone call from my mother and he said, “Yes. No, he’s all right. He’s fine. He’s being released.” I’m very suspicious, and I said goodbye and I walk out of his office and I’m walking to the street and a policeman comes in and says, “I’m placing you under arrest.” So they released me for two minutes and then I’m in for another 90 days. That’s how you play with the law. I take off my tie, my shoelaces go, my watch goes, I’m back in the same cell.
And I started having some out-of-body experiences then. Very strange. I’m lying on my little cot, and I would feel Albie is lifting out, looking down on me. And I’m not a person given to a spiritual view of the world in that sense. I’m a great believer in the human personality and spirituality in that sense, but not an out-of-body experience. But I had them. They were quite, quite strong. I’m a little bit worried, but I carry on, I do my exercises, I run around the yard, I do my press-ups.
Suddenly one day they come and say, “You’re being released.” Now it wasn’t after the second 90 days, it was after another 78 days. So now I’m a little more hopeful. I get my tie back, I get my watch back, I go downstairs, I look around, there’s no policeman to arrest me again. And I put on my running shoes. I’m in the center of Cape Town. I’ve grown a big mustache. It was the only thing I could do where I felt I had some self-determination. And I ran all the way through Cape Town and through an area called Green Point, and down to the coast, further than I’d ever run in my life, about eight miles, dreaming, I’d always dreamt of, if I’m released, if I get through this, I’m gonna go to the sea. And I go down the steps, and by then my colleagues, the lawyers in Cape Town in their suits, have driven up, and they saw me there, and they’re waiting for me in their smart lawyer suits, and I’m looking a bit crazed. I was a bit crazed. And down the steps and I just flung myself into the sea. It was absolutely triumphant on the outside. Inside there was something crushed, something deeply unnerved by these weeks and weeks and months of just being on my own.
How did you keep your sanity during all those weeks of solitude?
Albie Sachs: I would try to keep myself going by inventing games, and I would sing songs, a song beginning with “A,” “Always.” “Because,” “Charmaine,” “Daisy,” go through the alphabet. It’s quite an interesting collection of the hit tunes of October 1963. And my favorite was “Always.” “I’ll be living here always. Year after year, always. In this little cell, that I know so well, I’ll be living swell, always, always.” And I would sort of waltz around, singing to myself and be amused with the fact that this Irving Berlin song— picked up by Noel Coward, who wrote comedies of upper middle class manners — was keeping alive the spirit of this freedom fighter in Cape Town. “I’ll be staying in always, keeping up my chin always. Not for but an hour, not for but a week, not for 90 days, but always.” And then it’d be “Because,” and “Charmaine,” and so on. I would try to remember the states in the United States of America. I had two arms then, so I could count on ten fingers, but — and I would begin with all the A’s — and I couldn’t mark down. And I think I got up to about 47 once.
I won’t mention the names of the states that I didn’t remember when finally I got out and I looked at the map. I had a towel, it was a checked towel, and I would use pieces of orange peel to play checkers on the towel. But it’s boring playing against yourself. Your left hand knows what your right hand is planning. I would watch ants. There was a caterpillar once, it became very exciting, and suddenly disappeared. It was just a kind of activity.
After I’d been in a couple of weeks, the only book I had was the Bible, and I would ration myself to read a couple of columns every day. Not too quickly, because I might be in for years, and I didn’t want to feel stale and saturated. So I’d read the Bible for a certain period. I would do my exercises, food would come. I would pace around, and I would try to construct some system during the day. And one day the station commander comes in and he’s waving a piece of paper. He said, “If they’d listened to me, this would never have happened.” I don’t know what he’s talking about. He gives me the paper, and I’m reading, and I can’t read across the page, so I’m reading down in columns. My eyes are going down — but the sentences — and it says, “In the Supreme Court of South Africa, Cape of Good Hope, Provincial Division, in the case of Sachs vs. Russo…” Hey, that’s me! “Before Justices…” — it was Banks and Van Vincent, or Van Vincent and Banks — “…it is hereby ordered that…” and I’m reading, “…that the applicant be allowed reading matter and writing material.” I couldn’t show my joy. Wow!
Until then I’d been in a rage against the judges, against the legal profession. Being picked up and put into solitary confinement without access to lawyers, without a trial, without charge, indefinite detention without trial. How can that happen? They’re doing nothing? And I turned on my colleagues, and your emotions get very exaggerated when you’re in solitary confinement. And now they were the most marvelous people who had ever been on the whole earth. Fantastic. The legal system, rule of law, even in these dark circumstances. That saved me.
That suddenly I got books. And then, what books? What do you choose? And they wouldn’t let me have my friends send in books in case there was some secret code. So I had to order from the local library, and it amused me no end to think of this young policeman going into the library and asking for Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and imagining the librarian. I was never able to read it actually. It was too intense, too introspective. But I read Moby Dick and I read Don Quixote, two books that to this day are very powerful in my memory. Two marvelous, magnificent books that I’d never had the time to read. And I particularly enjoyed Don Quixote, especially the second volumes where Cervantes himself had been in prison. And he wasn’t writing about this crazed person pursuing futile honor. He was writing about this brave idealist who kept being knocked off his horse, and he’s down in the dust, and Sancho Panza comes and picks him up and he gets back onto the horse and he goes and he’s knocked down again and he gets up. And of course I identified totally, totally.
I’d always imagined the librarian thinking, “My vocation is made if a policeman comes in and asks for Don Quixote, even if he can’t pronounce the name properly, and asks for Moby Dick. It’s great to be a librarian!” I told that story at a world conference of librarians in Durban, a couple of years back. They were very moved. Sadly, the actual librarian — they knew who it was — he’d died in the meanwhile, so I was never able to meet him.
How did your second detention come about?
Albie Sachs: Two years later I was picked up again. By then, half of my clients had been picked up and things were much rougher now. And the investigation was much tougher, and sleep deprivation was being used as a major mechanism of breaking people down. And I’m locked up and it’s not, “Will you answer our questions?” And I would say, “Depends on what the questions are.” And they would say, “We can’t tell you what the questions are…” and it was a game, “…unless you tell us what you’re willing to answer or not.” Now it was just, I’m seated at a table, they work in relays. They bang, bang, bang, bang for like 10 minutes, and then total silence for 45 minutes. And then they go out and another group comes in, and shouting and shouting, shouting at me for ten minutes, and then total silence.
Were they able to detain you longer the second time?
Albie Sachs: It was now called the 180-Day Law. Later on, it became the Terrorism Law. The word “terrorism” was used to justify just locking us up, and we were fighting for freedom, for democracy. But the label was used to justify keeping us in indefinite detention without trial. And they went through the afternoon, through the day, into the night, deep into the night.
I asked for food at one stage, and I remember them smoking as they gave me the food — and I’m convinced there was something in it, and it emerged afterwards they were using chemicals to break down your resistance. And by early morning, I’m feeling myself getting weaker and weaker and weaker. And my body is fighting my will. So it’s not even them anymore. And they’re working in relays, there were about eight of them, and they’re taking turns, and they can sleep and come back. And the head was a Colonel Swanepoel. “Rooi Rus” (Red Russian) they called him. It’s like he cultivated ugliness. I don’t think how people appear is significant about them at all. But it was as though he liked the fact that he had short, cropped, reddish hair and bloodshot eyes and a thick neck. And heavy ham-fisted hands which he would slam onto the table, and a bellowing voice. And he was notorious. People had died — I knew that — had died under his interrogations. And then, bam, bam, bam, screaming and shouting and start banging the table, then total quiet. And eventually I feel my resistance going.
I say, “Albie, you’ve got to manage your collapse. It’s coming. Your clients had sometimes held out for two, three, four, five days and when they broke, they broke completely.” And so now I’m thinking about it, how I can control. Eventually, early in the morning, I just toppled off the chair. I’m lying on the ground and I see all those shoes coming. And I hear the excited voices, black shoes, brown shoes, and they’re all shuffling around me, and I’m just lying inert, and water comes pouring down on me and my hair gets matted. And I’m lifted up, and these Swanepoel’s heavy fingers pushing open my eyes, pushing them open, I closed them, he pushes them open, I close them, he pushes them open. And eventually I just sit and I collapse again, and the same thing happens a few times, and eventually I just sit and I’m going through my head, I’m going to say something. What am I going to say?
And I think it was about midday or early afternoon, I indicate that I’m going to say something. And they get the paper and I say, “I’m making this statement under duress, after being kept awake right through the night into the morning, water being poured on me.”
I’m sitting in the chair feeling absolutely horrible. It was the worst moments of my life, by far. I’m humiliated and I say, “I’m making this statement under duress…” and Swanepoel is writing it all down. And I describe the circumstances, being kept awake, my eyes bring pried open, water being poured on me. He’s written it all down. And then he starts asking me some questions, and I’m fencing, and he says, “Why is it you only mention people who are dead or out of the country?” And I just ignored his statement, and it’s stale stuff. I’d been out of the struggle for two years anyhow since my previous detention. But I was saying something, I was speaking to them. And our principle was you don’t say anything to them. You give your name and address and nothing more. And I felt totally degraded. He said, “We’ll be back. We’ll be back.” And I noticed he was like shuffling papers around, and he gets me to sign certain pages. And afterwards I realized that he’d left out the page with the opening statement, “I’m making this under duress.” And I feel even more humiliated.
A day or so later — somebody was smuggling in messages to me, in a thermos flask, in fact — and there’s a message to the effect that somebody else had been locked up, an architect, and had been through similar experiences, and his wife saw him and, and he was like a ghost. And he’d whispered to her what had happened to him, and she’d gone to court with that information and got an order restricting the security police from continuing the interrogation. And I wrote the second most important legal document I’ve written in my life, and I include working on the Constitution of South Africa. And a tiny piece of paper in the note that was smuggled out, saying what I’ve just explained to the camera now, in just a few words, that it could be used in evidence in his case. But the fact is, they didn’t come back for me, so it did save me from further interrogation. And I’m sure the intention was to pile it on, pile it on, pile it on, break me down completely. So though I ended up not giving away any information of any value, I still feel something inside me was broken, some strand of dignity and self-possession, and I’ve never got over it, never got over it. There’s some humiliations and pains you carry with you. You get on with your life, you manage, you do things, but you can’t say, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t count.” It counted. It was worse than being blown up, much worse then being blown up. The attack on my mind, my spirit, my dignity, much worse than the attack on my body which came many years later.
What brought about that release, when you were released the second time? And then what drove you into exile?
Albie Sachs: They actually wanted me to be a witness, in a trial of somebody who’d been through that whole thing, and he saved us from being called as a witness because he made various admissions in the court and we were all released. This time, when I came out of the prison, my friends were expecting me to run to the sea again, and I just shook my head. I said, “Take me home.” I was restricted, another banning order. I couldn’t leave Cape Town, I couldn’t go outside of a white area in Cape Town into what was called a black area. I couldn’t go to a school, I couldn’t be published, very severe restrictions, but it wasn’t house arrest. I was restricted to paradise, because it had Table Mountain and the beautiful beaches. And every Sunday I would climb the mountain and it was so important for me, I would feel free, because if they were following me, I could look down the cliff face and see. So I’d have five hours of freedom, and that’s one reason why I’m such a strong believer in the green movement. Somehow the mountain represented more then just a safe place. It was nature. It was the world that we’re being touched with, the earth, the sands, the rocks, the plants. And come rain, come shine, every Sunday, I would climb.
One day I went up with a psychiatrist friend of mine — and by the way I’d been introduced to Freud through all this because I couldn’t understand why is it so difficult to be brave. There was something inside me that wanted to collaborate all the time with the people who wanted to destroy me, and I was searching for it, and I found there was a thing called the unconscious that everybody has. And you’ve got to be in touch with the unconscious to understand a lot of your behavior. And I read through volume after volume after volume of the collected works of Sigmund Freud. I still remember that light blue paper of the Tavistock series. Page one to page 400, Volume 2, all the way up to the letters. And I got stuck in my unconscious for years. I had trouble getting out of explaining, “When I walk, why does my left foot go in front of my right foot?” There was nothing that just happened. Everything had to be predetermined, explained.
In any event, my friend, Professor Lynn Gillis, and I — he was a great mountain climber — we went up one side of Table Mountain, and on the left was Devil’s Peak. And I said, “Lynn, I’m going up Devil’s Peak,” and I went up, I came down, we climbed Table Mountain. We walked right across the top, we came down and I said, “Lynn, I’m going up Lion’s Head.” So these three mountains in one day. I was totally exhausted. He got really worried when I came down exhausted at the end of it. And he told me about what he called “Türschloss syndrome,” the “closing door” syndrome that elderly males often suffer from. You feel you’re losing your virility so you go through extraordinary feats of physical activity to prove that you’re still a macho guy. I was only 31, but he was absolutely right. It was, for me, desperately trying to rescue something of an inner youth through physical activity. I was very, very defeated.
I had met Stephanie Kemp who’d been, as it turned out, in the same prison cells I’d been in, and I was asked by an attorney to defend her. She was being charged with sabotage. And I said, “Please, I can’t. I identify so much.” “Just go and speak to her, give her some courage. When it comes to the trial we’ll get someone else.” Well they did get someone else to be the senior lawyer. Meanwhile I’ve fallen in love with her. We didn’t mention anything. We didn’t touch. We just spoke about the case and a bit about her past and sense of betrayal. But we were in love across the table, and she was sentenced to some years imprisonment, released. She came out to warn me that they’re coming for me again, that was my second detention. I still remember her saying, “And I was in that prison cell, and I got so angry with you because they all told me, ‘Why can’t you behave like advocate Sachs?’ And that pompous stuff you wrote up above the cell door, ‘I, Albert Louis Sachs, am detained here without trial under the 90-Day Law for standing for justice for all.’ Couldn’t you say it in less legal language?” And of course, even when I was writing that, I was careful not to say anything that could be used in evidence against me. I also wrote “Jail is for the birds” on top of the cell.
When I said good-bye to her and first time I shook her hand when she went off to prison, I just knew destiny had brought us together. She came out, we met, we carried on, developed our relationship a little bit. She being followed by the police all the time. We went down to the beach one day, and it gave me some pleasure to know that the big, heavy security officer in his suit was sitting out in the boiling sun while we were eating ice creams down on the beach. But we couldn’t even be together, and the choice was going full-time underground — there was no underground existing, I’d lost my courage — or leaving the country and asking for a permit to leave, which was another humiliation. And we decided to leave, and that we would meet in London and we would marry.
So how did you feel when you finally left South Africa for England?
Albie Sachs: In those days you traveled by boat. This is 1966. You didn’t travel by plane unless you were super rich or a prime minister or something. People were throwing streamers and everybody was happy. Lots of South Africans longed to go to Europe. And the boat would go, “Wooooo, woooo!” and my heart is going, “Woooo, woooo!” and I’m laughing and appearing very jolly and happy. At least I’m going to be free of the arrest without trial, sleep deprivation, living in a country that’s so racist and ugly, and where it’s hard even to fight back. But inside me there was a terrible, terrible heaviness.
We get to London, and all I wanted to do was lie on Hampstead Heath and watch the kites flying. It’s soft grass and kites flying, and you’re not going to be arrested. Part of it was quite marvelous, but part of it was also very humbling and very, very sad. I’d asked them for a permit to leave. I was stateless. They gave permission to leave on the basis you never came back. You committed a criminal offense if you tried to come back. And it took me years and years and years to recover my courage.
I read. I could catch up on my reading. Oh wonderful, wonderful! The History of Science by J.D. Bernard. Always wanted to read that. The Origins of Chinese Civilization by Joseph Needham, I’d always wanted to read that. Nothing to do, no pressure, no money to earn. Just to read, read, read. And then I managed to get a scholarship to go to Sussex University, do a Ph.D.
I wanted to write about this strange thing, the South African legal system. It was so extraordinary. On the one hand it allowed me to be thrown into prison, tortured by sleep deprivation. It made the majority of people carry these documents. Millions — literally millions — of Africans were prosecuted all the time for not having their documents in order. We had the highest rate of judicial capital punishment in the whole world. Kids were beaten, thousands of them, as a form of punishment for juveniles. At the same time you could sometimes use words like “freedom” and “justice.” You could get something through the court. You could expose your torture. You could be heard with some degree of dignity, there was some little open space called the courts. How could these things be reconciled? And my whole thesis was based on that, and the book Justice in South Africa emerged from that. And it was a very fascinating story for me to learn the origins of the implantation of a modern legal system. To learn about African justice in traditional African society, where capital punishment wasn’t used. Where the families would be brought together, where there was strong systems of rationality, where everybody in the community could engage in questioning the witnesses to get at the truth. I felt a little bit reconciled to what had happened to me. I had a Ph.D., I got a job teaching international law at Southampton University. They took me on because I was a foreigner and they thought that meant I was qualified to teach international law. And teaching everything — criminal law, criminal procedure, criminology, family law, contract law, law of tort — because I wanted to get material I could take back to a free South Africa one day.
But I was always down. Stephanie and I married, we had two children, absolute joys to us. I had books published.
I had a book, The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, my first book, which was converted into a play and put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company and broadcast by the BBC. I even went to the play one day. There was an American tourist sitting next to me, and I was dying to nudge him and say, “You know what?” And some stupid sense of dignity made me feel, you know, that’s a bit cheap, and I’m sorry now, it would have been a nice story for him. And it was marvelous the way they spoke. I mean the actors, British actors, were tremendous. And when I was sitting in jail I used to imagine a play by me being put on at a theater in England. Somehow applause from an English audience in theater, that was the highest applause in the world you can get for anything. And here I’m actually sitting in the theater and people are applauding, not me but the play.
David Edgar did a most marvelous adaptation, and I did quite a lot of broadcasting and I wrote. My Ph.D. was converted into a book called Justice in South Africa, and it won some prizes and was well received. And then years later, I wrote a book called Sexism and the Law. It was the first book on the way the legal system, as a system, had kept women out, denied them the right to practice as lawyers. The way the judges had used the word “person” to say, “a person means a male person,” so that they’d even distorted the English language to keep women from voting, from practicing as barristers, from doing a whole range of things that men could just do. That was my contribution to British intellectual life. And it was published in America, California University Press, but they wanted an American counterpart and I met, through that, Joan Hoff Wilson, and she did the second part of the book. We hadn’t even met and I said, “Dear Joan, you don’t know me. Your name was given to me by somebody you don’t know either, but this is my manuscript. Can you do the American part?” She wasn’t a lawyer, she was a legal historian and she did the most marvelous section. So this was the first book in the world I think on sexism and the law. And I’m happy to say that many other books have followed and I’m sure improved on it.
But I still wasn’t happy. I would sometimes say, “Even when I’m happy in England, I’m unhappy.” I loved London. I’d take people around London. I went to shows, I heard music. I had really good friends there. I loved teaching at Southampton University. I discovered modern dance, contemporary dance, so many things, but there was a deep sadness inside me. And I remember when we used to have ANC meetings, they’d always be in drafty little halls with broken windows. I’d often be wearing a heavy overcoat and there would be nice soft seats. They would be old-fashioned halls that you didn’t have to pay very much for. And you’d get up, and the seats would all clatter, clatter, clatter. And we’d sing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” and people would raise their right arms with a clenched fist salute. And I couldn’t raise my right arm. It wasn’t a decision on my part. I just didn’t have the courage, I didn’t feel that strength. And I’d be the only one in a room with maybe 20 people, maybe 50, maybe 10, without giving the salute of the organization. And then I went to Mozambique in 1976. I’d been teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam during one of those long English summers. You finish marking your exams, and I was able to teach a whole term in Dar es Salaam without missing a day of work at the Southampton University, and have a week left over, during which I went to newly independent Mozambique.
We’d heard about Mozambique — Samora Machel, FRELIMO, the Front for Liberation in Mozambique. They declared independence, June the 25th, 1975. It gave a huge fillip to the struggle in South Africa. People now started using the word viva. “Viva! Viva!” Viva this, that and the other. In South Africa, they took over the Portuguese word, “A luta…” they would say, “…continua,” (the struggle continues) from the Mozambiquan struggle — became used in South Africa, and I wanted to see this country. The minute my foot touched the tarmac of the airport, I knew, this is where I’m going to be happy. It was the light, the vegetation, the people. That separation from a context that you’d grown up in, involuntary, that gets to you. I was back again. I was back in Africa. I was close to my country. The energy. The problems were my problems.
I had very hard days in Mozambique afterwards. I came to work there afterwards at the law faculty in the university. Things were very hard for most of the time. We used to queue up for rations of rice and bread and occasionally eggs, and some butter, cooking oil. You could get some fish from the market, you get some fruit from the market. But we stood in line like everybody else. We were very proud to be working as equals. I had to learn the Portuguese language. The legal system was very, very different from anything I’d ever known. And there was an enormous confidence. Wow! They were so proud, and rather disdainful of the ANC. “Why don’t you fight like we did? It’s taking you so long!” And I felt at times lonely and marginalized, which I have done many times in my life. But I sort of hung in there. But even when I was unhappy, I was happy in Mozambique. I loved these beautiful trees with purple petals — jacarandas — and the petals would just fall down onto the ground. By then, unhappily, my marriage was in ruins.
I got a beautiful, filigree sort of a bracelet and I picked up these, these petals and flowers and, and I sent them to Stephanie. We were both desperately unhappy. I wrote her a long lovely love letter of what we’d meant to each other, what we’d been through in South Africa — what I wanted to say, instead of arguing about money and the children and this, that and the other — and I posted it. I waited very anxiously for the reply. A week passed, and two weeks. Then I just got a postcard and it said nothing about it, and I snapped. For me it was over. It was over, it was gone. I put everything into that letter and then… Not even a few days later then that, I get a letter from her saying, “Dearest Albie, your letter’s just arrived. We had a postal strike in England. I didn’t get it. I’m so sorry about the card that I sent you. I don’t think we can get together again. I don’t think so, but I appreciate what you said.” But I’d snapped, I couldn’t put it together again. I’ll leave it at that.
It’s hard when your marriage finally breaks up, even if you’ve been unhappy for a long time. and I felt it very strongly and I couldn’t understand why. I’d met somebody. We shared our beliefs, we shared danger and hopes and aspirations. We loved each other and we agreed on philosophy. We have two marvelous children. We agreed on what’s good for the children. We didn’t fight over money, outlook, the world, politics. Our tastes were very similar in music, art and books. And yet we just couldn’t get on.
Maybe every relationship has three big elements. There’s the element of destiny, there’s the element of passion — which was physical — and there’s the element of daily living. For us, destiny was just overwhelming. It was historical circumstance. In and out of prison, sharing dangers and aspirations. It was totally overwhelming. The passion was okay, and we kind of managed, and living was a disaster. The simple little things of how to eat, and getting in and out of bed, and just daily habits. Obviously that touched on something deeper in personality, and it was very, very sharp. I remember we were angry with each other for about six months, really angry. And then suddenly it kind of came right, and happily, Stephanie and I are close friends. We’ve been through a lot together. When I remarried, Vanessa and I both felt she should come to the wedding. It was a very small wedding and Stephanie was there.
How do you think you were affected by living in Mozambique?
Albie Sachs: Mozambique did something very special for me. I remember going to a big meeting at the football stadium. It was one of their national days, and I was right up at the top there. And a little thing of people said, “Here comes Samora Machel! There’s Samora!” And I couldn’t work out who amongst the different people was Samora Machel until he started addressing. And he would sing, and the people would join in the singing. And then he would give a viva. “Viva povo unido do Rovuma ao Maputo!” Long live the people united from the Rovuma in the north to Maputo in the south. And 60,000 arms went up, and my arm went up. My arm went up for the first time in years, spontaneously. Mozambique gave me back my courage.
The spirit, the feeling of this great endeavor — to transform a world, and people would emancipate themselves. I got it there. I went up with what we call “the Mozambique Revolution.” I came down with it, because it couldn’t be sustained. You couldn’t do it just on endeavor, just on slogans, just on good ideals. You needed systems in place, you needed to develop your economy. Your economy couldn’t be separate from the world economy. The Cold War was on. South Africa and then-Rhodesia were undermining and sabotaging in all sorts of ways, and it ended up with what appeared to be such a powerful idea of bringing everybody together, uniting everybody behind one party, FRELIMO, overcoming race, overcoming tribe, overcoming regional divisions. It left something out: space for opposition, for diversity. It just wasn’t there.
Mozambique was extremely important for me. I was back in Africa, with the problems of Africa, the energy, the song, the music, the grace, and I got my courage back. It was such a powerful idea. Unite everybody in a poor, underdeveloped, fragmented, formerly colonized nation. You bring them together around one central organization — the Front for Liberation of Mozambique, FRELIMO — that’s anti-racist, that’s anti-tribalist, that is part of the emancipation of all oppressed people throughout the world. The unity becomes such a source of strength, and it was very, very powerful.
We would queue up. We were short of food. We would get our rations of rice and cooking oil, occasionally fish, sometimes meat, sometimes eggs, occasionally butter. But we felt very proud — intellectuals, people from outside — in the country, all sharing for the sake of developing this one underdeveloped country that is coming together with its own personality. Great art, beautiful dancing, a sense of pride in being who they were and not a colonized people any more. But one thing was missing — space for opposition.
Many people ask, “Why is it that the ANC became, effectively, the key instrument in promoting possibly the most advanced progressive constitution for an open democratic society in the world?’ The theme of pluralism runs all the way through the constitutional order, pluralism based on total respect for human dignity, and a basic equality for everybody. But why the importance of freedom of expression, of having opposition parties? Many people ascribe that to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Communist states and so on. Those things were important, in terms of the historical setting in which South Africa achieved its democracy. But the most important thing was our experience living in neighboring African countries, seeing at first hand the advantages and disadvantage of different political systems, and there wasn’t space for opposition in Mozambique. Opposition went underground. It got picked up in the Cold War by — I’m sorry to say — the CIA, and the South African security, and Ian Smith in racist Rhodesia in the earlier time, and we were beleaguered. You would hear guns going off at night. You couldn’t leave Maputo except by airplane for years. Before that we could travel by car anywhere and everywhere. I visited nine out of the ten — or ten out of the eleven — provinces. But now we were surrounded. Refugees were coming in, and you just had a sense, if there’s no scope for opposition, the opposition becomes violent, and the country gets torn apart. We had to avoid that when we got to South Africa.
While you were in Mozambique, you began to prepare for eventual freedom in South Africa. You began drafting human rights guarantees as a model code for a democratic South Africa, didn’t you?
Albie Sachs: Yes. It wasn’t just me. I was part of a very big ANC team, and I worked very, very closely with Oliver Tambo, who was the president of the ANC in exile, who had an enormous influence in my life. It’s no accident that our little son is called Oliver. He was working in Lusaka, Zambia, and there’d be a weekly flight. One day he phoned up, and I’m quite excited. Oliver Tambo, President of the ANC is phoning! I had been working as a law professor at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane. The law faculty was closed down. I’m now working for the Ministry of Justice. I’m doing a lot of research. I’m reading, thinking, writing in Portuguese. To this day, sometimes I’m searching for a word, and the Portuguese word comes to mind before the English word. And he very politely and quietly asked me if I’m getting on with my work, my health, how things are happening in Mozambique. I’m wondering, “What do you want? What do you want?” And he said could I possibly come to Lusaka for an important project. If it would help, he would phone President Samora Machel to make it possible. And normally, in the ANC, the message would come saying, “Comrade Albie, you’ve been appointed to go to Greenland for a conference next Thursday. Catch the plane and prepare a 25-page paper.” That was the normal way. The President would say, “If you’re free we’d appreciate it very much.” And of course, when he said that, you said, “Yes, please. Please, I’d love to come.” So I flew to Lusaka about a week later, very curious, and again come to his office and he’s asking me politely how I’m getting on. What is it?
And he (Oliver Tambo) said, “We’ve captured a number of people who were sent from Pretoria to destroy the organization. And we don’t have any regulations about how they should be treated. The ANC is a political organization. It has an annual general meeting in terms of its statutes, and elects its leadership. You pay your subscription. You agree to the aims and objects. Political parties don’t have provisions for locking people up and putting them on trial and deciding what to do with them. Can you help us?” And possibly the most important project — legal project — of my life emerged from that. He said, “It’s very difficult, isn’t it, to know what the standards are for treatment of captives?” In a rather cocky way, I said, “Well, not so difficult. We have international instruments that say no torture, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment.” He said, “We use torture.” I couldn’t believe it. ANC — fighting for freedom — we use torture? He said it with a bleak face, and that was why he wanted me in there because what to do about it? The security people had captured these rascals who were trying to blow up the leadership and introduce poison and do all sorts of terrible things. They were beating them up. I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t know the details. They did emerge later, but he knew the details. And so we prepared our whole document, which was nothing short of a code of criminal law and procedure for a liberation movement in exile, without courts, without police force, without prisons. But how to deal with those people. The host country said, “It’s your problem. Our courts are busy enough. You deal with it.” So we had to establish a code of legality, and a concept of fundamental human rights. Fundamental human rights. No torture, no abuse, no ill treatment, whoever they are, whatever they’re trying to do.
And a year or two later, in 1985, the ANC had a delegates conference, basically ANC people in exile — a few from underground in South Africa — in a small town called Kabwe in central Zambia. And we were surrounded by Zambian troops, in case commandos from the apartheid government regime came to take us all out and destroy us. We were discussing a future democracy in South Africa and fundamental rights for everybody. But in particular, we were discussing what to do with captives who’d been sent to destroy us and kill us, and should it be possible to use what were called — euphemistically called — intensive methods of interrogation. And one by one, I still remember so strongly the delegates coming. Some of them were in Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, young people, and saying, “No. We don’t use torture whatever the circumstances, whoever the enemy is, whatever the dangers, because we’re not like that. We are fighting for life. How can we be against life and disrespect the human personality even of those sent to kill us and destroy us?” I felt so proud. As a lawyer I felt, you know, we lawyers, we speak about rule of law and no torture, and it’s easy for us in our relatively comfortable lives. These were people risking danger every day in their work and their lives — from very, very poor backgrounds — insisting on those core elements that kept us together as an organization. We didn’t want to become like the others.
It wasn’t just a question of who was stronger physically, who could mess up and hurt the other side the most effectively to extract information. It was what we stood for, and the ANC, as an organization, took a very, very firm position that we put people on trial. We don’t have indefinite detention without a trial, whatever the suspicions might be, and we don’t use torture — sleep deprivation, water boarding, suffocating people, physical abuse. We just don’t use that, because that’s not the kind of people we are. And I mention this with some emphasis, because it meant, when eventually it came to writing the South African constitution, we didn’t need any persuading about the importance of fundamental rights. We had applied the theme of fundamental rights to our enemies in circumstances where conditions were often desperate for us. It was part of our integrity, and our personality, and that dream and sense of idealism that made us a liberation movement, and not just another group of people fighting for power, to dislodge one group and replace them with another group.
Of course the enemy came to me. I was never in the armed struggle. I supported philosophically the right of the oppressed people — who’d been denied the franchise, the vote, any possibilities even of protesting against the awful conditions in which the people lived — the right to use armed force as part and parcel of a broad political struggle, involving the whole world with the divestment campaigns, the isolation of racist South Africa, mobilization inside the country, bringing people together — black, white and brown — in a common endeavor to replace the system of apartheid with the system of democracy. But I’ve never been involved myself in using bombs and carrying a gun and anything of that kind. So I wasn’t personally involved in the armed struggle, but the armed struggle came to me in the form of state terrorism.
My friend Ruth First had been killed by a letter bomb in 1982. She was teaching at the Eduardo Mondlane University, a wonderful and marvelous intellectual. A seminar sponsored by the United Nations — and boom! She was blown up. And we cried so much, and we sang. We threw flowers into the grave. We carried her to the grave. And there was a portion of the cemetery in Maputo where many South Africans were buried, over 20 who’d been killed. And each time we went there we wondered, “That little space over there, is that for me?” Of course it was nearly for me.
I knew I was in danger. I actually bought an alarm for my car in the United States. I thought, “Well, I’ll use my life savings to protect myself,” and I spoke to Professor Jack Greenberg of Columbia University, and I felt in the U.S. you can buy anything. You can buy security with a little money that I’ve got. But he didn’t know about terrorism and protecting yourself. So he put me in touch with the human rights specialist from Precinct 34 or 49 or something in New York, and I went there, and it was Captain Smart, I think his name was — a very strange discussion. He was African American, and he knew that I was a South African in danger, and he assumed I was in danger because I was white — from the ANC, and I explained to him that the danger actually came from the white government not from the ANC. And in the end, what he said to me was, “You’ve just got to be paranoid. Change your modus of living. Don’t follow a regular pattern.” And I felt I was very secure in the apartment where I lived, but he said, “Have you thought about somebody drilling a hole in the ceiling?” And now I was really paranoid, because I thought at least I’m safe when I go to sleep at night. And I felt the car possibly was the most vulnerable thing, and eventually I ended up buying a very sophisticated alarm, which no one in Mozambique knew how to fit. Finally there was someone from Denmark, an electrician, and he fitted it, and it would make a terrible racket. It frightened me. I went away one year, and lent the car to a friend, and he felt he couldn’t give it back all dusty and dirty, and he hosed it down and short circuited the electrical machinery, and that was the end of any protection.
I felt that they wouldn’t go for me. I was clearly a law professor. I wasn’t working in the underground resistance. I was very friendly with many diplomats, including the United States. I would take visitors around, and I felt they wouldn’t go for me. I was so obviously a soft target and there would be a reaction against it. I was wrong.
A lot of people who were living in exile were vulnerable. Farmers in their fields, people in hospital. Everyone became a target.
Albie Sachs: It was the last throw of the securocrats in South Africa, saying, “You’re facing the total onslaught. We have to be ruthless in our response.” They assassinated an ANC person in Paris, her name was Dulcie September. A bomb exploded the Anti-Apartheid Office — the ANC office — in London, and clearly I wasn’t safe in Mozambique. But you didn’t want to give way. You didn’t want to flee because of the danger. So many people inside and outside the country were accepting risks.
I was doing fascinating, interesting work. I was working on a new bill of rights, why we needed a bill of rights in a free South Africa. And there was a lot of opposition from very progressive, very bright, young black students to a bill of rights. They saw it as a “bill of whites.” That the bill of rights was there to be opposed to democracy. “Once we get the vote, we won’t be able to do anything because our hands will be tied by provisions in the constitution that will insure that all the property…” and by law the whites owned 87 percent of the surface area of South Africa. But… “By law they would be able to hang on to 87 percent of the surface area through a bill of rights. They would constitutionalize apartheid.” And I had to explain — and under Oliver Tambo’s leadership I was given the authority and the responsibility of doing that — “The bill of rights can be emancipatory, a progressive bill of rights that includes social economic rights, that allows for transformation and change under conditions of equality and fairness is part of a bill of rights. We mustn’t allow extremely conservative, ultra-conservative people to write the bill of rights and tie our hands and make the constitution an unpopular document in our country. We must insure that the terms of the bill of rights recognize the rights of everybody, and especially the rights of the dispossessed, the marginalized, the poor, the women suffering under patriarchal domination, the children who have no rights at all, people dispossessed of their land, workers trying to get a decent job with a decent wage. They are all part and parcel of the bill of rights project, as well as people who invest who want their investments protected, who want to insure that there is a rule of law if there should be any economic transformation.” So we were debating all these questions while we were in exile, and it meant we were ready. We were ready when the day came.
In 1990 I was in Masaka (Zambia). We were working on some legal project with the Constitutional Committee of the ANC and we worked right through the lunch. I still remember, we just had some black tea and a stale roll to eat. We didn’t live it up in luxury in exile. The head of the Constitutional Committee said, “Well, let’s listen to the BBC.” It was about ten past three in the afternoon. We switched phones. We knew that Prime Minister-President de Klerk was going to make an announcement. We thought, “Not again. He has done so many times. Don’t have any expectations.” And this very confident English radio announcer’s voice said, “…and because of the unbanning of the ANC…” What? We jumped up! We danced around. There was a young chap who’d come clandestinely, to learn about doing secret underground work in the trade union movement. He was in the room and he was staggered. He’d only known illegality. We’d known legality years before. This was a restoration of negotiations which we’d wanted all our lives. He hadn’t known what it was like to be legal, and he couldn’t understand why we were so happy. Then it was a question of being able to go back.
Tell us what it was like when you finally saw Mandela and the other freed prisoners.
Albie Sachs: A few weeks later, in Lusaka, we were so excited. Nelson Mandela, after all these years, was coming to Lusaka. The ANC, that had been split — between those on Robben Island, those working in the underground in South Africa, and those of us in exile — was being united physically. We went to the airport, and an interesting and not very nice thing was happening. We were told some dignitaries could be on the tarmac, other important officials of the ANC behind the rope, and the rank and file would stay in the airport building itself. There were good security reasons for that, but somehow one felt this was a division that wasn’t very nice, and I wanted to be ultra-democratic, so I stayed in the airport. Then somebody pushed me forward and said, “No, Comrade Albie. You must go forward.” I went forward to the rope, and there we saw Mandela getting out of the airplane. Oh, what a special moment it was! And he came past, and we hugged, and it was terrific.
Later that day, there was a hall where we all met. I remember, as the people came in, we’d known them 30 years earlier. Thin, lively young people, lots of hair, dark hair. And now, gray hair, bald, sometimes with a paunch, but recognizable from the smiles, the voice. Coming in — about twenty of them coming in — and a couple hundred of us, and everybody running and hugging and embracing, and I felt very alone. I felt very alone. I wanted something emotional and special, and there wasn’t any particular person. The only time I felt the loss of my arm was that particular moment, that I’d be coming back to South Africa without my arm, and that was the moment I wanted an embrace. Eventually somebody came from the Eastern Cape, and he gave me a beautiful hug.
You say you felt the loss of your arm. What were you thinking of?
Albie Sachs: I thought back to that darkness when I’d been blown up, and I didn’t know what was happening, and total darkness. And I knew something terrible was happening, and I thought I was being kidnapped to be taken to prison in South Africa. And voices talking, and my body being pulled, and I shouted in English and in Portuguese, but not too loudly. I’m conscious even then that I’m a lawyer in a public place. We mustn’t make a noise. “Leave me, leave me. I’d rather die.” Then I’d faint and I feel terrible pain in the car. I thought at least they could have decent springs in the car if they’re gonna kidnap me. And then total darkness, total silence and a voice says, “Albie, this is Ivo Garrido. You’re in the Maputo Central Hospital. Your arm is in…” and he used the Portuguese word lamentável, “…it’s in lamentable condition. You have to face the future with courage.” And into the darkness I said, “What happened?” and a woman’s voice said, “It was a car bomb,” and I collapsed into darkness again, but with a sense of euphoria. I’d survived. For, I don’t know how many decades, every single day in the freedom struggle, wondering, “If they come for me today, if they come for me tonight, if they come for me tomorrow morning, will I be brave? Will I survive?” They’d come for me and I’d got through. I’d got through. I just felt fantastic. Then darkness, quiet, nothing.
I come awake. My eyes are covered. I can’t see anything but I’m feeling very, very light. I feel there’s a sheet on me and I tell myself a joke about Himie Cohen who, like me, is a Jew. He falls off a bus and he does this (gestures) and someone said, “Himie, I didn’t know you were Catholic!” “What do you mean Catholic? Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch.” I told myself that joke. And I decided now to discover what had happened, what the woman meant about the car bomb. And I started with my testicles. Everything seemed to be in place. My wallet — my heart — was okay. Spectacles — I’m feeling any craters in my head. That’s all right. Then my arm slid down and discovered that my arm, my right arm, was short, and again, I felt marvelous. I’d survived, and it was only an arm, and I’ve got through. And I had a total extra conviction that as I got better my country would get better. Had nothing to do with rationality, evidence. It was just that powerful emotion that I’d got through the worst, and South Africa would get through the worst, and we were now on the way to constitutional democracy.
The recovery, it turned out to be a marvelous period in my life. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody, but it is great to be almost literally reborn and to have a fresh start. “Naked you come into the world.” I was almost naked. I was going to the beach. I almost went out of the world. Now I’m lying naked on this bed, and I’m coming back into the world, and I’m having to learn to do my bodily functions. Having to learn eventually to tie a shoe lace, to stand up, to walk, to run, to ride, to write with my left hand now. And each time I wanted to say, “Look, Mommy! Mommy, I can write! Look Mommy, I can tie a shoe lace.” It was actually a marvelous experience for me.
I think everybody wonders, “If I were to die tomorrow, would anybody cry?” And people thought I was dead, and they cried, and I knew that. I never have to ask that question again. It’s not a real question you ask, but it’s something that’s inside of you that you wonder about. And so much love came, and I developed a connection with England that I’d never had before. I’d lived there. I’d worked there. I’d written books. My children were born there, grew up there, but now it was the nurses taking off the bandages, cleaning my body, washing me with love and tenderness and… organized. It made me appreciate British people with an affection and a closeness far deeper than anything that I’d had before, and I emerged from that, I think, a warmer and more generous and a better person, and ready for the tasks at hand in South Africa.
Did you have a private moment with Mandela after that first meeting in Lusaka?
Albie Sachs: A week or two after the meeting in Lusaka I was in London, and Nelson and Winnie Mandela are coming to London and everybody’s excited. I’m excited all over again. Some people go downstairs and some upstairs, and it turned out that Madiba (Mandela’s nickname) was going to go to the one group and Winnie to the other group. We’re standing in a row, and she’s being escorted, Winnie Mandela, along the row, and comes to me, and she doesn’t recognize me. I hadn’t known her from before. And somebody says, “Albie Sachs.” “Albie Sachs!” she says. She opened her arms and she just embraced me, and that’s what I actually wanted from somebody, anybody. It came from Winnie. She’s a very controversial figure in South Africa. She was. But there are moments like that, that belong to you and another person, and even though I was often critical of some things she was associated with, I never forgot that particular moment. Then I could relax. That embrace that I wanted and needed had been given.
Now it became a question of planning for democracy, and flying back into South Africa after 24 years and about two months — and I knew it exactly then — so many days, and so many hours I’d been away. It was actually quite lovely. As the plane was flying in, it was from Zambia, there’d been a group of women from South Africa at a women’s conference in Zambia, and they all put out their hands, and clasped my one arm, and said, “Welcome home, Albie.” It was spontaneous. It was just a really lovely gesture. Then we go into the hall there, and I don’t have proper documentation. I’ve been stateless for a long time, but I’m coming back, and I’m not going to worry about documents. A white, Afrikaans-speaking official comes up to me, looking very stern, and he says, “Welcome home, Albie.” He was very gracious and very lovely. I see him occasionally at the airport. “Do you remember me?” he says. And I do remember that.
I was back, and flew down to Cape Town, and I’d had this dream I would climb Table Mountain. Every day I thought about climbing Table Mountain on my first day back, and I went to my mom, who’d been waiting all these years for me, and we had some tea. And I said, “Mommy, I’m going out to Table Mountain,” and I put on some appropriate shoes and we walked up the back. It wasn’t rock climbing. I didn’t know if I could do it. All the way right across the back and down. I even remembered some of the paths very, very well. And the other thing I was dying to do was to go to the symphony concert on Thursday nights. It had been a moment where, in the midst of all the imprisonment, and the pain, and the difficulties, if I could go to the concert on Thursday night, I could love my Beethoven and Mozart. And during the interval, someone came up to me and said again, “Welcome back, Albie. For 20 years you never missed a concert, except when you went to jail.” And I felt that, in a way, it was a reconnection.
Then the hard period of negotiations. Now Nelson Mandela is effectively the leader of the ANC. Oliver Tambo had a stroke and wasn’t able to do what he’d done before. Very close, working with Nelson Mandela in planning for a new constitution for South Africa. He didn’t play an active role in the details. His job was to really negotiate with President de Klerk, and represent the ANC publicly. But he played a very important role as the sort of person steering the tone, the temper, the quality, and insuring that there were good teams working on the constitution.
There were many of us working on the constitution. Many, many, many. Cyril Ramaphosa, a lawyer who’d been a trade union leader, became the head of the negotiating team, and we would work with him and with Nelson Mandela. We even had a quarrel with Nelson Mandela at one stage. I was sent by the ANC Constitutional Committee to fight with him. He wanted the votes to go to 16-year-olds, and we said, “No. Eighteen is the international standard.” He said, “No, but the youth fought hard for our freedom.” And we said, “But that was the youth of ’76, and now it’s 25 years later. They’re older people.” He said, “No, we’ve got to get the youth in.” He said there are seven countries that allow votes to even 14-year-olds. It was North Korea and Yemen, and we said, “We can’t be associated with countries that are not known for the open, pluralistic, democratic system.” Eventually he said, “Well, you will see. You will see that I was right.” But he accepted. He was wounded. Years later he gave that as an example. He was trying to drop a hint to President Thabo Mbeki about presidents must know when to admit that they’re wrong and to climb down, that they can make mistakes. So he acknowledged that he’d been wrong on that particular one.
We had a very industrious team. We worked day and night, day and night. We’d lived everywhere in the world. We’d lived in the United States and Canada. We’d lived in East Germany and West Germany. We’d lived in Cuba and we’d lived in the Argentine. We’d lived all over Europe, all over Africa. We didn’t have to study textbooks to know about political systems. We had to remember our lives in the Soviet Union. We’d seen advantages and disadvantages of different systems, and we had a very, very powerful negotiating team. And in the end, I think it’s fair to say all the main elements of our constitutional order derived their strength from the wisdom of the leadership of the ANC in wanting a constitution that would embrace everybody, and that was the vision of Oliver Tambo. He’d always had that. He’d always had the vision of the Freedom Charter, an open, pluralistic, democratic society where people could say their say. They could agree to disagree, as long as they agreed on certain basic fundamentals. No human being was more important than any other human being, that everybody had to be looked at with equal respect and concern. That was foundational, and that was our answer to the idea of the whites having special reserved seats and veto powers which would have been a disaster in South Africa. Whites had to be people like everybody else, with the same rights, responsibilities and duties. The same concerns, anxieties, hopes for their children, whatever it might be. Fully respected, but not somehow a specially protected group in our society. We fought hard for that, and we won that in the new constitution order.
Can you recall the first time you voted in a democratic South Africa?
Albie Sachs: I was in Cape Town. I stood in a line, thinking our whole lives had been devoted to the vote, because South Africa was an independent state. We didn’t want independence in that sense. We wanted “One person.” We used to say, “One man, one vote,” but we changed that to “One person, one vote.” It was our equivalent of a Declaration of Independence, and now we’d achieved it, and we stood in line, black and white, brown. Everybody — young, old. I didn’t feel anything. I was so surprised. I thought I would be elated, and somehow it was so banal, and just putting a little X. My vote is my secret but I can whisper to you — it was next to Nelson Mandela’s photograph — and I felt flat. I was surprised and disappointed. I wanted that sense of exultation, and somehow I suppose it made me equal in a way that I didn’t want.
I wanted to be a freedom fighter, doing something special for my life, for my country, and what this did was make me the equal in a marvelous — and in some ways a terrifying way, of the oppressors, of the rich, of the poor, people who’d done nothing. It was like a very ordinary act, and it’s not easy to become ordinary. Then I would start telling myself, the paradox of South Africa was we’d fought — all our passion — to create a boring society. A boring society in the sense that people didn’t kill each other and push each other around. We had all the normal complaints and dramas and hopes and disappointments of a democratic society.
You have to detox, and not everybody managed to do that. Living in dread, living in hope, living with your body on the line, living with physical pain, living in exile, living in imprisonment, confinement, all these years, and now you’ve just got to be an ordinary person in an ordinary society. And then another emotion started surging. It’s wonderful to be able to heal, to construct, to build, to enable things to grow. We’d spent all our lives dedicated to pulling something down, something evil and wicked. And I personally found that terrific.
For me personally, as an individual, it was part of my physical recuperation to see the country now beginning to grow, and the constitution was the bedrock of everything. It didn’t build houses. It didn’t get people access to schools. It didn’t solve the problems of the country, but it gave a mechanism, a matrix, a way in which people could solve the problems without being at each other’s throats. So it was the foundation of everything. And then to be appointed to the court that defended that constitution in which our lives were invested, it was just a marvelous continuation of what we’d been struggling for. And now it’s 15 years. Whew! It just passed like seconds. I just remember being sworn in. We started our court with nothing.
We had one chair. I know we had one chair, because when the Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson retired a few years ago, his secretary said how terrifying it was, sitting on the one chair that the court had, with this tall figure going around firing questions at her. And so from one chair we had to build up. It’s now an exceptionally beautiful building in the heart of the Old Fort Prison, where both Gandhi and Mandela had been locked up. It’s got a library that’s trying to be the biggest human rights library in the southern hemisphere. We get people from all over the world doing internships there. We have young South Africans working there, spending a year with us, recent law graduates. It’s a marvelous, open, friendly place, and I think our court has helped to pioneer legal thinking in a number of very, very difficult areas. We struck down capital punishment as being a violation of the fundamental dignity of every human being. The state just doesn’t kill in cold blood. Corporal punishment of juveniles, we’ve declared that was unconstitutional. We’ve developed a foundation for dealing with fundamental social and economic rights, that rights are not simply “keep out” in relation to the state, but obligations on the state to meet certain core ways of protecting human dignity when it’s really under threat. We have written on same-sex marriages. The court asked me to write the judgment, and we were unanimous that to deny people the right to celebrate their love, affection, intimacy, mutual responsibilities and supports — simply because they happen to love someone of the same sex — violated our equality clause. So it’s been not just a court trying to catch up with other courts in the world, but a court that’s been providing leadership in many, many areas.
Did you come to know Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? When did you first meet Archbishop Tutu?
Albie Sachs: The first time I met him he wasn’t Archbishop. He was, I think, at Kings College, studying or teaching theology in London. This very bright little chap shared a platform with me, and we kind of eyed each other, and I was very, very serious and I think I spoke far too long. I was very worried about this, that and the other and I used the word “imperialism” quite a lot. I think it was him. I’m not even sure it was him. And then years passed, and suddenly he’s Archbishop Tutu, and he’s making wonderful speeches and he’s bringing civil society into the big debates, the grand dramas. He’s at the right place at the right time. He’s supporting the struggle for democracy with that very effective voice that he had, and of course he gets the Nobel Prize and we all feel we are getting the prize. Then, when it came to a truth commission, I was a strong supporter of the truth commission. Partly, we had to deal with crimes committed by ourselves, against people who we’d beaten up and tortured when they — before we introduced the Code of Conduct into the ANC. We had to come back to South Africa with clean hands, no secrets. We had to acknowledge this, explain why and what we did about it. But it was more important to deal with all the assassinations, the tortures inside South Africa, the violations. So I argued for a truth commission even before we got our new constitution.
By the time the Truth Commission was established, I was a judge so I couldn’t deal with that. In fact, we had to sit in judgment on whether the act — the statute that created the Truth Commission — could exonerate the torturers, the killers, from civil liability as well as criminal prosecution.
In a most exquisite judgment, filled with almost poetic legal language, written by the deputy head of our court, Ismail Mahomed, we explained why the project of getting truth — in exchange for not prosecuting the people who came forward to acknowledge what they had done — that project meant to encourage the truth to come out, we wouldn’t allow civil damages or imprisonment. And it had a very special meaning for me, because one day I got a phone call, and reception says, “There’s a man called Henri and he says he has an appointment to see you.” I said send him through. Henri had phoned me to say that he had organized the placing of the bomb in my car. He was going to the Truth Commission. Would I meet him? I was curious, and I was pleased that he had the courage, if you like, to come and see me. And opened the door and there’s a young person — tall, thin like myself. I’m looking at him. So this is the man who tried to kill me, and he’s looking at me. “So this is the man I tried to kill?” We don’t say that but it’s in our eyes. And we walk down, and he’s striding like a soldier, and I try to hold him up, to walk like a judge, to slow him down. We get to my office and we talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk and eventually I stand up and I say, “Henri, I have to get on with my work now. I can’t shake your hand, but go to the Truth Commission. Maybe we’ll meet one day, and who knows?” I remember, when we walked back, he was just shuffling like a defeated person, going out the security door. It was over.
Months passed, and I’m at a party at the end of the year, and the band is playing. I’m very tired. We work very hard as judges. I hear a voice says, “Albie!” I looked around. “Albie!” My God, it’s Henri! And we get into a corner and I say, “What happened? What happened?” And he said, “I went to the Truth Commission, and I spoke to Bobby and Sue and Farouk.” He’s calling me Albie. He’s using their first name terms, people who were put into exile with me, who also could have been victims of the bomb. “I told them everything and you said that one day….” and I said, “Henri, only your face tells me that what you’re saying is the truth.” And I put out my hand and I shook his hand. He went away absolutely beaming, and I almost fainted. I heard afterwards that he suddenly broke away from that party. It was television people. He went home and he cried for two weeks. That moved me a lot. To me that was more important than sending him to jail. I wrote a book called The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, saying that if we got democracy in South Africa, roses and lilies would grow out of my arm. Sending people to jail wouldn’t help me at all, but to get the country we’d been fighting for, that would be quite wonderful. That would be my soft vengeance. And now Henri and I — I don’t phone him up and say, “Let’s go to a movie.” But if I’m sitting in a bus and he sits down next to me, I say, “Oh Henri, how are you getting on?” We’re living in the same country because of the Truth Commission.
How would you describe the Archbishop’s role in the Truth Commission?
Albie Sachs: Archbishop Tutu had an absolutely fundamental role. He didn’t create it. He didn’t establish it. But he gave it a personality, a presence, a leadership. It couldn’t be somebody who said, “I’m neutral on torture.” You can’t be neutral on torture. He had emotion and feeling. He encouraged the people to sing hymns beforehand. African people would often feel — poor people — that they would get courage and strength from singing hymns. He encouraged witnesses to testify with a comforter next to them, to hold them, to hug them when they started crying and remembering the terrible things. He gave it an African feeling, a humane feeling, a quality of ubuntu, of coming out with the truth, acknowledging the interdependence of everybody. Perhaps it had more of a confessional aspect then I personally might have felt appropriate to my particular world view and outlook. But he was very much in touch with millions and millions of ordinary people. He said his section of the Truth Commission allowed the little people to speak.
They moved around. It wasn’t some big, important commission in a big, important building. They would go to little school halls. People would come and they would feel represented there. Since the Truth Commission has completed it’s work I’ve encountered Desmond Tutu quite often. Of course we’ve shared platforms. There’s a marvelous bond between us. There’s just something. It’s unstated so I’m not going to try and state what it is. He comes from a deeply religious background. I come from a totally secular background. When we went to an event at the Anglican Cathedral in Grahamstown, where people were asked to bless others by waving wands of plants, of branches, he asked me to bless him. In some ways it was quite cunning and tricking, because he’s involving me in a religious ceremony. But I did it with all my heart, because there is a bond and a connection — spiritual relationship — between us that’s very strong. He’s a marvelous voice for our country, and he’s funny and he’s provocative and projects himself in a way that really communicates with people.
What about former President Mandela? Have you seen him recently?
Albie Sachs: Nelson Mandela I’ve seen less of in recent years. As he said, he’s retired from his retirement. But his legacy, his memory, his personality is just so strongly with all of us, in so many ways. But he represented a generation, a culture, and many, many other people of that generation. I feel I must be one of the most privileged people on earth, because I was born into white privilege. It just came whether I wanted it or not. I could dream if I wanted to go to the moon. Having read Jules Verne, I could imagine I could do that. If I wanted to become a lawyer, I could imagine I could do that, or whatever it might be. But then I had the privilege of belonging to a freedom struggle. A wonderful, wonderful experience. You break through barriers, you work with others, you develop a sense of common humanity you could never do otherwise. Now, the privilege of working on the court that defends fundamental rights of the people, and the happiness that comes from having what I call L-L-L. Everybody knows www. L-L-L — “light, life, love,” and working in a beautiful court building that will be a legacy that will go on, with the marvelous art collection, and having a gorgeous little child, Oliver, born to Vanessa and myself. Lots of happiness at this period of my life.
Speaking of children, we’d like to ask you about your own childhood. To start at the beginning, where were you born?
Albie Sachs: That’s a boring question. An interesting question is what’s a guy like me doing, being a judge and becoming a judge. But I was born in the Florence Nightingale Hospital in Johannesburg, which happens to be directly across the way from where the new Constitutional Court has been built, in the heart of the Old Fort Prison.
Who were your parents?
Albie Sachs: My mom, Ray — she was Ray Ginsberg — came as a baby of six months from Lithuania, fleeing the pogroms there, to South Africa. She was a typist for Moses Kotane, a very prominent African leader. My dad was Solly Sachs, General Secretary of the Garment Workers Union, who came — aged, I think, about six — also from Lithuania, also fleeing the pogroms, the persecution of the Jews. Every Easter time, the Cossacks would ride around saying, “The Jews killed Jesus, now we’re going to defend the name of Jesus by killing some Jews.” A very awful, ugly form of racial persecution which, I think, influenced the consciousness of a whole generation of refugees who ended up through London coming to South Africa.
I might say I didn’t stand a chance with parents so involved, so conscious about injustice, and not just thinking about it as an idea but living in their daily lives, in very practical terms, campaigning for the rights of people, rights for workers, against discrimination. I didn’t stand a chance. I just grew up in that atmosphere. And I think what was particularly valuable — a white child growing up in racist, segregated South Africa — my mom would say to my brother and myself, “Tidy up, tidy up, Uncle Moses is coming,” and she had enormous respect and love for Moses Kotane, the African leader. So it was quite natural for me to see that people respected people for their quality and their worth, and it didn’t depend on your race, your appearance or your background.
How did your mother first come to know Moses Kotane?
Albie Sachs: She had been a young rebel herself, and she met my dad. They were both in the Young Communist League and had very, very strong ideas about transforming the world, emancipating the workers everywhere. And Moses Kotane was then the General Secretary of the Communist Party. He was also the National Executive of the African National Congress, which is a very diverse organization, and he was particularly strong on insisting on people thinking in broad terms, working with other people for a common end.
I just remember him as Uncle Moses. He used to smoke. This is not very politically correct today to even have this memory, but he had a little cigarette holder, and he was kind of quite stylish. He came from a very, very poor, sort of peasant background. He’d been to night school and my mom taught him, at night school really, to read and write English. And he used to joke afterwards, “She taught me to read and write and now I’m her boss.” But it was said in a very lovely, loving and kindly way. Totally unusual then for South Africa, but establishing a norm that we now take for granted.
What values did you learn from observing your mom’s relationship and conduct with Uncle Moses Kotane?
Albie Sachs: It wasn’t conscious values, it was just being. Respect for somebody whom you admired. The total meaninglessness of a race as an indicator of what a person is like, what they mean, what they stand for, how you get on with them. I think that was probably the strongest thing. There was also a lot of humor, a lot of fun. This was now the beginning of World War II. Racism was being extolled by Hitler — Nazi Germany — as an ideal, and getting quite a reception in South Africa, because of our past. And I was growing up in a little home world that was completely different.
The other thing was that material possessions were really very unimportant in our home. We lived actually very modestly, but filled with ideas, and a world full with ideas was also a world filled with fun. Sometimes people feel you get rid of all your possessions, but you become very severe, and you don’t enjoy food, you don’t laugh, you don’t dance, you don’t sing, you don’t go and swim on the beach, because you’re out doing good things in life. It wasn’t like that at all.
Sadly, my mom and my dad split up when we were very young. There were lots of strong women around, so I grew up in a world where women took decisions, got on with their lives, had tremendous kind of fun and laughter amongst themselves. So that also became natural for me. As Americans would say, I didn’t have a chance. I grew up something of a feminist, without the ideology, just with the situation in which I lived.
Was religion part of your upbringing?
Albie Sachs: Religion was, in the sense of being a very contested area. Ray and Solly fought their parents over what they regarded as the imposition of a religion on them. They were Jews. I’m a Jew. I was born into a Jewish family. It’s part of a culture, a history, a being, a personality if you’d like. But religion didn’t play a role in that, and it was very complicated for me. I was at a school where half the kids were Jews, half were Christians. I was a Jew by birth, association, culture, history, being, existence. But when it came to Jewish holidays, Christian holidays — some of them were public holidays like Christmas and so on — Jewish holidays, I didn’t feel it within me that I ought to take those holidays, because I didn’t belong to the cultural, religious side of things.
It was very, very, very tough for a nine, ten, 11, 12-year-old child, thinking through the questions of belief and conscience for myself. My parents never put it onto me. They always said, “It’s your choice. It’s your set of beliefs, and you must make your own way.” And I remember feeling, “If I don’t have that belief, it would be dishonorable to me, and to my conscience — and very disrespectful to God if God exists — if I am pretending a belief that I don’t have.” I think back now. That was tough for an 11, 12-year-old. And yet, it turned out to be decisive in my life in surprising ways.
The issues of conscience played a bigger role in my life than issues of race. I didn’t have to overcome the usual racial stereotypes and prejudices that most white kids had growing up and battle for years afterwards to get rid of those prejudices. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t influenced by them. They seep in all the time consciously and unconsciously. It wasn’t a major battle for me. But the question of integrity of conscience — what it means to you as a human being, as a person, to believe in what you believe, not to pretend to believe because people expect it of you, even people close to you, even people whom you love, or your community or your peers at school, but because you truly believe, because it’s true to you and it’s part of who you are — that I kind of worked out at that age. And as I say, I often felt very, very lonely, very lonely and — but I got through it.
And consequently, there are two consequences.
The one is, to me, the question of conscience is number one. It comes before food. You can survive on almost anything, but your dignity depends on your conscience. And if you’ve got the right conscience, and you meet other people with the right conscience, you get together. You solve the problems of food, but you can’t solve the problems of conscience just through food, and through eating and dining and wining and whatever. The other thing is it’s made me enormously respectful of the beliefs of others. It was so difficult to be a non-believer in a believing, or sometimes pretense-believing environment. It’s made me hugely respectful of belief, of religious belief of all religions, of all faiths. And strangely enough, when years later, Oliver Tambo, who was the President of the ANC, wanted somebody to help him prepare for a meeting of world leaders of conscience and religion, he didn’t go to the religious desk of the ANC to discuss it. He came to me. He came to me, and we worked on themes together. He just felt there was something deeply respectful of conscience and belief, not sectarian. The religious desk of the ANC would say, “How can we get the Catholics on our side? What can we do for the Muslims, for the Jews?” and so on. And that wasn’t what it was about. It was about that intrinsic respect for human dignity, for conscience, for belief of all people that Oliver Tambo — this very, very committed Christian who often thought of giving up politics to become a full-time minister in the Anglican church — and Albie Sachs, who had grown up in this totally secular home — we just got on. Got on like that because, I think, of our mutual respect for conscience.
Do you remember when World War II broke out? What did you know about the war as a young boy?
Albie Sachs: I was how old? I was born in 1935, so now we’re 1939, so I was four and a bit. It was everywhere, on the news, people were speaking about it. I can’t say I remember where I exactly was when the first radio broadcast came of the Nazi invasion of Poland. It dominated by childhood. War, war, war. We read about it, we heard about it. It was far away. It was a big abstraction out there, the terrible enemy. I had some uncles who joined the army, and in South Africa they called it “going up north.” You went from South Africa to fight up north.
There was a clandestine, quite active sabotage movement — who supported Hitler in South Africa — of extreme right-wing Afrikaner nationalists. Very anti-British and also very racist. That was around. There’d be strange things when you entered a cinema. They always ended with playing, “God Save the King,” and you were expected to stand. Most people would stand, and some would sit. That was their little way of publicly showing their opposition to the war.
Occasionally at school we would have memorial services for a kid whose dad was killed in the war, and there’d be a kind of a gloom and we would sing, “Abide with me, fast was the eventide.” It still resonates in my head. It’s six decades or more later, but it was done in that funereal way. It wasn’t real, it wasn’t tears for someone close, it was kind of institutionalized, but it was part and parcel. Perhaps the tough part was preparing young boys to kill and to be killed, to be soldiers.
Courage was the big thing. Would I be strong? Would I be brave? Would I win the Victoria Cross? Somebody from our school won the highest award given to soldiers by Britain — and South Africa being associated with Britain, by the South African government — for heroes, and usually dying in battle, saving your comrades. So we grew up in this very macho world, and the good side of it was selflessness with courage. The bad side of it was almost a blind willingness to go out there and destroy the enemy and risk being destroyed yourself. Very complicated.
Boys never fully outgrow that. I think I sang more in sorrow than anything else. You never fully get beyond that idea. You measure yourself in terms of — certainly when I was a kid, as a young boy — in terms of courage. That was the number one quality. Courage being determined by flying your plane and shooting down the Nazis — Messerschmitt and so on — lobbing the hand grenade as you charged over the top and saved the lives of so many people. It was interesting, actually, growing beyond that.
The war ends, and courage is kind of in the air, not quite in that same intense way. And then the smart, attractive boy, and that’s seen as who will get the girls. Okay, it’s good if he’s good at sports and he’s robust and strong. It’s a continuation of the natural thing. But it was good to be clever, to be smart, to be brainy. That counted for quite a lot. And for years that continued, sometimes with the kind of war between the macho, hunky men — brave on the one hand — and the smart, clever guy who could be seen as a bit of a nerd on the other.
I still remember it took decades to go to the next phase of the attractive man. Now it’s not just the boy. And the attractive man had savoir faire, was stylish. I used to see Frank Sinatra. I mean, now I think, “Frank Sinatra’s my role model for the attractive man?” And I ended up so crumby, but he would light the girl’s cigarette and they would mix a martini in those kind of fake apartments. And gee, I could never be like that.
I enjoyed school, I enjoyed the kids, I enjoyed listening to their stories after the school break. They would boast about their sexual conquests. I was two years younger than all the other boys in my class, because when the war broke out a lot of male teachers went to fight up north, as it was called, and they had to use the women teachers. There weren’t enough of them, so they pushed the kids up and made the classes bigger, and I ended up leaving school. I was only 15 when I went to university. I was still just turning 16.
So I was younger than all the others, and they were sexually much more boastful than I could be and I was always worried about that. I remember going to a dance at University of Cape Town, and I had the advantage of being tall. That shouldn’t make any damn difference, but it counts. And I could talk, you know, quite confidently. I was quite good at talking. I read lots of books, I had been in our debating society. I loved quizzes. But I was terrified the girls would ask my age. ‘Cause what do you do? You meet somebody, and the first thing you want to know, “How old?” And I thought, “Gee, you know, she is 17 and I’m only 15. Just turned 16. She’s never gonna dance with me.” And I couldn’t dance then either. So I would see the question coming, and like five, six, seven steps away, like a chess player, I would turn the subject until I turned 21, and then suddenly I didn’t care anymore. So it was that mixed feeling of being very proud. “Gee, I’m brainy. I’m so young and I’m getting all these good scores, but I don’t want her to know.” It’s strange, but these things cost one a lot. You spend a lot of energy on that.
Your parents developed a sense a community, with their friends, their neighborhood. What were the passions of those people, of that community?
Albie Sachs: Well, my dad lived in Johannesburg. He was a very well-known figure. We’d call him a big shot. We’d walk down the street with him and people would, “Hi, Solly,” wave to him, greet him. I still remember once when that happened, he gave a huge greeting back. I said, “Who was that?” He said, “I don’t know.” He just found it easier, you know, just to be acknowledged. And he was a very strong personality. He was a fighter, and after he died — when he died — in Johannesburg, somebody at the cremation — the funeral said, “I’m sure if God exists, Solly is arguing with him right now.” He was a very marvelous, passionate person with a deep romanticism. A brilliant trade union organizer who helped to establish modern labor unions in South Africa, with more than just fighting for wages. Cultural programs, medical aid, educational programs. One of the union members became a great opera singer afterwards, and that was quite important for my sort of background. It was embarrassing reading about him in the newspapers. You felt proud but also a little bit embarrassed. And he had lots of argy-bargy with the authorities. Eventually he was forced out by government diktat from doing any trade union activity. And when I was now away at university, he went into exile, to England.
My mom and I lived in Cape Town. We grew up by the sea in very modest circumstances. Usually a basement, or what we call a bungalow, a little cottage which she had to move from every six months, ’cause you could only let it for six months. And I remember in my second, third year at school, my report card was full already with addresses that I had been in. I felt very uncomfortable. So we were different. We were different. We didn’t celebrate birthdays. We didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays, we didn’t celebrate Christian holidays. These weren’t important things. And we had lots of knitted jerseys from our aunties and hand-me-down clothing. Clothing wasn’t important. What was important was ideas.
Were you an avid reader as a student?
Albie Sachs: Yes. Yes.
What books did you have access to, and what did you enjoy reading when you were young?
Albie Sachs: There weren’t near as many children’s books then as there are now, but I would have read a few. A little bit older are the books that I remember. And yet, extremely important to me, there was one book that was fables.
There’s one particular story of a young man from a poor family, and living in a peasant, rural environment and he sets out to see the world. And he passes through a forest, and it’s a thick, dense forest and he requires enormous perseverance to get through. And then it’s the desert. And it’s crossing the desert and the sun is beating down, and his mouth is tight with thirst, and then a high mountain and then the ice and snow. And eventually he gets to the other side, a kind of a kingdom, and of course, as these stories end, he’s triumphant and he’s made the king and he gets the bride. And it ended happily. Now I’d forgotten that story completely until I was in solitary confinement in prison.
And all the other books that I’d read glorified the brave, young person. We got things called comics from England, weeklies with the serial, and the boy — usually from a poor background — at the school who dealt with the school bully and got on. And there was an English boxer called “Rockfist Rogan,” and Rockfist Rogan would knock out the German heavyweight champion in the ring, pretending to be a German himself — this was during the war — and suddenly escape and capture a Messerschmitt in the airport and fly back and his plane is being shot down. And the one wing would fall off, and one propeller would go and then the other propeller, but somehow he would land safely. So these were like our heroes. We loved those stories. But there were also stories like Emil and the Detectives from Germany. And I was recently in Berlin and saw the Hotel Adlon where it had taken place.
It wasn’t an accident I read that, because there were many refugees from Germany whom my mother was very friendly with. And we even got her into trouble, because my brother and I went around very primly, aged about four and three, or five and four, telling the other kids, “You mustn’t say all the Germans are bad. You mustn’t say the Germans are bad. It’s the Nazis who are bad.” Again, you know, quite tough for a little four-year-old and yet, that was also combating stereotypes.
There was a writer called Geoffrey Trease who wrote stories about young boys who were involved in very historical episodes — Bows Against the Barons — fighting with Robin Hood. So you could identify with the poor, with the rebels, with the people fighting for a better life, and getting their sense of achievement and worth not through making money or scoring in football games, but through being associated with people fighting injustice. So all of these. But reading and reading. Jules Verne, and going to the moon, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, that sort of fantasy, the precursors of modern science fiction. By the way, I don’t enjoy contemporary science fiction, but as a kid I liked reading those books.
Who did you admire as a young man? Did you have a role model or a mentor that you looked up to?
Albie Sachs: I don’t like the idea of role models. There’s only one role model I think that matters, and that’s yourself. And the question is not to try and be like someone else. I think of two great personalities who were locked up in the prison where we’ve now built the Constitutional Court: Gandhi and Mandela. But you can’t be like Gandhi. You can’t live with a dhoti today and have that strict diet and you give up sex and eating food with salt. He didn’t consult his wife, by the way, when he gave up sex. It was his response to a moment, a period in history, Gandhi. You know, if you’re not six foot tall and an African man, you’re not gonna be even physically like Mandela, let alone you’re not gonna spend 27 years in jail. You can’t emulate that, and then you say, “Well, I can never be like that. That is so heroic in terms of the imagination. That leaves me out,” instead of saying, “What can I find in myself? How can I interrogate myself? How can I be my own role model? Drawing from the experiences of others, what other people have done, what they’ve achieved, the dilemmas they’ve had, how they have overcome. All that will help me, but I must be my own role model and not try and copy someone else.”
You were in an all-boys school with a cadet program. Marching and rifle practice, and so on. What was that like for you?
Albie Sachs: Well, I once scored a 50 at the rifle range and I felt very, very proud. We marched up and down, we carried guns, we learned to salute. I got into the signals which meant that I learned Morse code, which was a little bit more intellectual and a little less based on drilling. It was the thing you did. You put on your khaki shorts and that’s what you did. We had a band, and you marched through the streets, and that was much more fun than sitting in school making notes and adding up figures. It was part of school life, so I didn’t, at the time, worry about it. Thinking back a little bit, it’s part of separating boys from the rest of the humanity who were girls. It doesn’t encourage sensitivity and feeling and respect. We used to love marching past our sister girls’ school. You imagined they were all coming to the windows, leaning out of ’em. I never heard from any girl who was there who said, “We actually did want to see these boys,” but it puffed us up a little bit, and that’s okay.
What was bad was we didn’t meet with girls as friends, as equals, as people sharing tasks, and dating became very difficult. It was very problematic for me. I was very, very awkward. We would have an annual school dance at the end of our last year. The girls’ school had a dance, and I was invited to be a kind of a blind date for someone. And I had a certain courage. I actually asked the headmistress to dance. I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other, but I wasn’t afraid. I quite enjoyed going and I enjoyed spending the evening with my partner. But I felt very raw inside. I put on something of a front. And then I wasn’t safe from all that until I joined a youth group at university. That was terrific. They had boys and girls, we were equal. The girls were — the word “feminist” wasn’t being used at the time, but they were very independent. It wasn’t couples: boy, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy.
It was a group of very anti-racist young women and very anti-racist young men called “The Modern Youth Society.” And what was great was we’d climb Table Mountain, we would have all-night parties, we would argue about God and belief. We would ask the sort of question, “If God exists, and God is all powerful, can God build a stone that’s so heavy that even God can’t pick it up?” It sounded like an absurd question, but it was testing the limits of our knowledge. Would there be one language for the whole world one day? Actually thought, “Wouldn’t that be good?” Because then all humanity could connect up, and many of the problems of the world were created by inability to communicate. Now of course, I think it’s a horrid idea of homogenizing. And what would that language be? But there were serious questions and we were anti-racist.
One of the things that encouraged me to join that group was trying to date. The center of romantic life was Saturday night. We’d call it — movies — but we’d call it bioscope, and you would have to phone up the person you wanted to go with you and hope that she would say okay. You’d pick up the phone, and you’d dial, and then you’d find an excuse to put it down again. And if you phoned on Monday, she might be waiting for someone better. If you waited ’til Friday, she might really want to go with you, but she couldn’t take the chance, so she’d already said okay to someone else. So Wednesday night was the key night, but everybody was phoning on Wednesday night. I thought, “Is this what life’s about?” You know. “Is this why I’ve been to school? I’ve learned everything. My mom worked for Moses Kotane. You know, is this what my heart must beat so passionately and strongly about?” And it was the Modern Youth Society that said, “No. You know, there’s a world out there. There’s a world of endeavor, of challenge, of association, of fun, of laughter, of tears, of difficulties so much more real.” And I wasn’t getting it through Frank Sinatra, and I wasn’t getting it through using the telephone. I didn’t have much money. I didn’t have a motor car or access to a car. I wasn’t even close. We would meet outside the cinema and stand in a line to get the tickets, and then she might be expecting a box of chocolates and I didn’t have money for the chocolates. And the chocolates, it was before air conditioning, would be hot and sticky and make a noise. In any event, the Modern Youth Society for me was — I must have been about 17 at the time, and that brought me into politics.
Up until that point, weren’t you interested in medicine?
Albie Sachs: At school, you know, people ask the standard things, and I’m afraid I do it when I see someone in their last year of school, “And what are you going to do when you finish?” And I’d say, “I’m going to be a doctor.” I don’t know why I changed. I know my dad had something to do with it. And I say that phrase carefully, because last year I was at the Ford Foundation as a Scholar in Residence on sabbatical leave in New York, writing my book Strange Alchemy of Life and Law. I tried to use a dictation computer system, the Dragon System, and I spoke into it and I was asked that very question, “Why did you change from medicine to law?” And I said, “I’m not sure why but I’m sure my dad had a lot to do with it,” and it came out, “My deadhead a lot to do with it.” So then I said, “My dad had a lot to do with it” and it came out South African style, “My dead head…” And I did it like five times. Apparently this thing has different English programs: American English, standard English English, South Asian English, Australian English, and finally I discovered South African English and it came out “My dad head…” That was the best that I got. I don’t know precisely when it was, but I went to university to study law and thinking back I think it was a good decision.
What kind of student were you at university?
Albie Sachs: In my first year I was what was called a “good student.” I was on a scholarship. I got distinctions for Latin and Classical Culture and English. And it was unheard of for a law student to get the prize, the medal for English, but I got it then. And I did quite well in the early legal subjects. In my second year I got reasonable passes, and the lecturers, especially in English, wanted to know “What happened to you?” And what happened to me was politics, the world, the world outside. I did enough to get through at university. I got through my five years to get a law degree without ever failing, without ever repeating, but I didn’t get distinctions from then onwards.
You were involved in one of the first major protests against apartheid, the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. How did your participation come about? When did you start?
Albie Sachs: I started when the campaign started. It was April the 6th, 1952. April the 6th, 1652 was the day when the Dutch fleet and Jan van Riebeeck landed in Cape Town, put up a flag, and said, “From now on this is part of the Dutch East India Company territory.” And so the day was celebrated as the beginning of what was called “civilization” in southern Africa, as though African people didn’t have a culture or civilization, history or past. And the Defiance of Unjust Rules Campaign started on that very day — to challenge this idea of white hegemony, that the whites are the centerpiece of existence, of history, of meaning in the world — when black people voluntarily sat on park benches marked “whites only,” traveled on buses marked “whites only,” crossed on bridges marked “whites only,” were out on the streets without carrying their documents, their passes that black people had to present to the police all the time.
I was at the very first meeting in Cape Town, when one of the leaders of the African National Congress, named Johnson Ngwavela, voluntarily defied an order — we called it “the banning order” — put upon him, placed on him by the Minister of Justice, prohibiting him from attending any political gatherings. And he came into this little hall, and we all stood up and sang, and we sang freedom songs. It was a very emotional moment, and they called for volunteers to join the Defiance Campaign. And I was dying to volunteer. And my friend Wolfie Kodesh with me, he said, “Shhh, shhh. No, no, Albie, whites can’t join.” I said, “Why can’t whites join? It’s a non-racial struggle against racism.” He says, “No, no, no, you can’t.” I remember holding onto the seat, clinging onto it to prevent myself from being hurled up with all the others rushing to sign that they wanted to be volunteers. And he said, “Look, I’ll speak to some of the leaders and we’ll see.” And it was only in December, so that several months afterwards a small group of whites, four whites in Cape Town, were allowed by the organization to join. Looking back now, I can see, of course, it had to be a struggle by the oppressed black people, manifested under their own leadership, organized by themselves. And then whites could come in at a later stage to demonstrate that very point. But at the time it really hurt me as a young, anti-racist idealist.
So then we went — four whites — to the General Post Office, and we came in through the “non-white” entrance and sat down. There were four of us and only three seats, so one had to sit up on the edge. And it became a little bit farcical, because they wouldn’t arrest us. The minute any black person defied any law, they were just whipped off to jail. And there was a white person sweeping the floors, and he was saying, “Hey, I’m sorry but you’re not allowed to sit there, it’s for non-white people only.”
This guy had a long broom and he was sweeping the marble floors of the General Post Office, and we were writing very pompous telegrams to the Prime Minister then, Dr. Malan, saying that we are voluntarily defying unjust laws to show our objection to racism in South Africa, something like that. And he was saying, “Hey, you can’t sit there. You’ve gotta move. That’s for non-whites only.” And we would say, “Yes, we understand that. We’re writing a telegram to the Prime Minister.” And then he would call his supervisor, and then the supervisor called somebody from the ninth floor and eventually the General Manager himself came to say we couldn’t sit there. And finally the police arrived. By then there was a huge crowd, and again, I remember with some amazement these tall Colonels from the police force came and said, “We have to place you under arrest.” And I stood up, and I was the youngest in the group but I was officially the leader, and I said, “Mayibuye iAfrika!” Africa, come back. And the crowd shouted back, “Afrika Mayibuye!” And when I think of it now, you know, where did I get the guts? Age 17 in front of these police. And the next thing, we were locked up.
You join the freedom struggle and you always imagined being in jail. And here we’re in jail, and we’re a little bit cocky, the three men and one woman. She was on her own.
And an hour or two later we’re in the magistrate’s court, and it’s packed, and the journalists are there, and it’s the first time whites are joining the Defiance Campaign, giving it extra newsworthiness. And then the magistrate looks at the docket and he says, “I see there’s a 17-year-old youth,” and it’s me. So I’m not a brave revolutionary freedom fighter; I’m a juvenile. “Are any of his parents in court?” And my mother stands up, and she was very proud of me and I’m very proud of her. And he says, “I’m sending you home to your mother.” That was very humiliating for this young guy.
But it was a kind of a breakthrough where you put yourself on the line. In the end, the Defiance Campaign was crushed by very severe state action.
What had been so interesting was going around asking other students who would join us. And some of the big, proud speakers, oh, they would make a fantastic speech about justice and so on. “Albie, I’d love to join the Defiance Campaign, but I’m going to a wedding,” or “I’m going to be with my parents in Johannesburg.” They all found little excuses. And some people whom I regarded as very modest and quiet said, “Yeah. Sure. Fine. Just tell me the date.” It was interesting to see a discrepancy between some of the passionate declaimers, on the one hand, and the quiet people who were more dependable, on the other.
After the Defiance Campaign, what was the next major step in your activism?
Albie Sachs: There’s one thing can’t be left out. It’s the Congress of the People and the adoption of the Freedom Charter.
It was 1955, in a big plot of open ground outside Johannesburg called Kliptown, that’s now become a monument of South Africa. And there were about 2,500 of us, defying all police attempts to stop us getting there, and over two days we proclaimed our support for what is called the “Freedom Charter.” That was a totally different vision of South Africa. It started off, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white…” and together we will fight until there is justice for all. The police came. They were armed with what were called “stun guns.” They came on horses. They surrounded us. Everybody had their names taken. There could have been a massacre then. We stood up, we sang. We sang. We sang. We sang freedom songs. We kept our calm, and on the basis of the Freedom Charter saying “Votes for everybody. Open the doors of education for everybody, the doors of learning and culture for everybody. Homes and security for everybody.” The leaders of the campaign were put on trial for treason.
I was raided. I was constantly raided by the police. I was about 23. They sent 156 people, put them on trial. I was part of a reserve team, like you get in a sports team, who were there in case of casualties, as backup. But I was never put on trial for treason. I was placed on what were called “banning orders,” which prohibited me for five years from attending any gatherings, from speaking to other people who were banned, from writing anything for publication, a whole range of prohibitions put on me. In one way it was nice. It cut out a whole lot of meetings. We spent our lives in meetings talking, talking, talking non-stop. And any meetings would be underground. We’d be very careful and report the meetings with great security. And the ’50s, that was a decade where the majority didn’t have the vote.
They didn’t have dignity. The laws were atrocious, but at least they could complain. They could protest. We could organize. And we created the germ, the vision of the new South Africa. The volunteering chief for the Defiance Campaign was a certain Nelson Mandela. He was the first one to go to jail, emerging now as a prominent leader. Chief Albert Luthuli, who was the President of the ANC, was the sponsor of the Freedom Charter. He was the first South African to get the Nobel Prize for Peace afterwards, and he embodied that spirit of non-racialism. He was a very earnest Christian, he was a traditional leader, he was a democrat. He liked people, he enjoyed being with people, he liked everybody. He had that vision of a country where we got away from these racist structures. And it wasn’t just an idea that he had; he did it in his daily life. And I remember when he came to Cape Town in the late 1950s. The crowds just thronged around him. I couldn’t shake his hand because I was banned. He had just ended his banning order. But I saw the street sellers, the businessmen driving their cars, stopping their cars, people coming out of the shops, off the barber chair, shopping in the big department stores, just to see him. I felt South Africa is ready. It’s aching for a non-racial democracy. This was a spontaneous thing. This wasn’t a drummed-up support. And it took us another 30 years. So many deaths, so many people tortured, so much exile, so much misery, but we got it in the end.
Had you already met Mandela, personally or professionally?
Albie Sachs: When I was a law student and I would go to Johannesburg, I would go up to the office of Mandela and Tambo just to pay my respects — the first black African firm of attorneys — and it’d be jam-packed with people. And the assistant there, the sort of manager, Ruth Mompati, would meet me and take me through the crowd, very kind. I mean, I was just a young law student from Cape Town — and introduced me either to Oliver Tambo or to Nelson Mandela. I’d be offered a cup of tea and then they would say, “Comrade Albie, how is the struggle going in Cape Town?” And you never said the struggle was going badly. You always said, “Oh, the struggle’s doing very well,” and, “You know, we did this, that and the other at the university.” And they’d say, “Well, thank you so much for the report, and you can see we’re very, very busy. I wish I had more time to spend with you.” It was really a courtesy call on my part, but it shows you should always make these courtesy calls. You never know.
And 40 years later, Mandela appoints you to the highest court in the land. Amazing. In October 2009, you’ll be stepping down from the Constitutional Court. What are your plans?
Albie Sachs: Well, at midnight on October the 11th I lose my magic. I’m not a judge any more. It’s gone. People won’t look at me with that same respect and interest. But not just me. There are four of us, who are amongst the 11 founding members of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, who were appointed by Nelson Mandela and we all leave. It’s our 15 years. It was an extended term which will be — 12 years in 2005, in our case it was 15 years — will be over, and I don’t use the “R word.” I don’t somehow see myself as vanishing from activity. I want to give little Oliver as much daddy as I can while I’ve got strength. I want to make a movie. I’ve got a very strong movie in my head. And I’ve spoken to some movie people and I’ve said, “If you say it’s no go, I’ll drop it.” They said — two different people — “Do the script.” So I’m encouraged enough to do that.
I want to keep alive as much as I can, and share experiences as much as I can about what it means to live in a constitutional democracy, to encourage and inspire — especially young South Africans — and people thinking about law and justice and what does it mean. And sure you can make a career, you can make money, you can travel, you can help settle things in a rational and a fair way, all that’s good anywhere in the world. But in our country it really is constitutive, it’s dignity. It’s a way of caring and doing something about the injustices, but in a just manner. Not just grabbing and pushing aside and saying, “Now it’s our turn.” It’s a way of bringing people together. On our court, we come from such different backgrounds, professional and life experiences. We share this ideal constitution that disciplines us, that makes us work together. We invest our empathy and spirit into that.
When I read recently President Obama’s view about what he looks for in a judge, I felt, “Has he got it from my book?” The importance of what Justice Brennan called passion, to go together with reason. If you’re just a cold machine applying reason, you might get it wrong, because if you forget that at the end of day it’s human beings out there who are affected by your decisions — by the impact the decisions of the court might have on their lives — it can go wrong. Many, many brilliantly clever judges, technically, have produced consequences that are just awful as far as human dignity is concerned, because they left out of account that dimension.
In South Africa you just have to, because it’s so clamorous. It’s around you. You can see the unfairness that’s still in our society. You can see the way in which race and racism — despite our marvelous constitutional text and the huge progress we’ve made — it still affects everything. I mentioned President Obama. He visited our court when he was a Senator. I’d met him at a house in Chicago, where I was telling people about our wonderful new Constitutional Court building, and the symbolism of putting our courts in the very prison where Mandela — and before that, Gandhi — had been locked up, to say the past matters, the past is important. We don’t forget the past, we don’t say let’s turn our back on it, but we don’t live trapped in the past, we move forward. We use that terrible negativity of the past to create positivity, to show our capacity as individuals and as a society to transform and change.
That energy becomes a source of enlightenment, and of something positive for our society. And it was quite wonderful, when I said in Chicago, “Please visit us.” And I couldn’t get his name right, you know, it was a funny kind of a name. So I just said, “Senator, please come and visit us,” and a couple of years back — in fact it was a month before he went to Springfield to announce that he was going to campaign — he visited our court. It was a marvelous meeting, because it was a meeting of minds, philosophy and outlook, a constitutional lawyer who had worked with the poor in Chicago, understanding what our court was about, but also appreciating the beauty of the building and the idealism of the members of the court.
I was asked to speak at what you Americans call your commencement, we call it graduation, at the American School in Johannesburg, and there was a small group of brass instrument players, who played the South African anthem, and it was lovely to hear. And they played “The Star Spangled Banner,” and I think for the first time since I was a kid and I saw all these war movies, I felt tears coming to my eyes. I felt I can appreciate “The Star Spangled Banner” because the American people voted for a president with whom we can identify. As a judge, I don’t get involved in the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, that’s for the American people to work out. But knowing that he visited our court, and that a majority of Americans had supported him as a president, just rightly or wrongly, appropriately or inappropriately, it just made me feel different about the whole country.
What do you see as the next great challenge, or the next great frontier, for South Africa?
Albie Sachs: It’s the same frontier, it’s not the next. We haven’t crossed the frontier of unemployment, of poverty, of dispossession, of landlessness, of homelessness, of lack of access to health, to education, all those different things. We just have to keep going steadily, steadily, to plan well, to involve the people and not simply deliver things from the top and hope that people will be grateful, and get upset when they’re not grateful. We just have to carry on doing more and better what we’re doing. We certainly have to allow our extraordinary creative cultural energy to emerge. People are so rich in that sense in this country. Poor people are rich people. Rich people are often poor in terms of body movement, laughter, conversation. We are finding ways. Painting and sculpting and needlework and embroidery, that’s a great richness of our country.
We have to find ways of linking with the rest of Africa, so we don’t become — I’m sorry to say it — what some people call “the Yankees of Africa,” in that sense of being seen to be domineering and we know everything. But at the same time to be proud of our democracy. Our biggest export, our biggest contribution is not going to be railways and cell phones and IT technology and so on. It’s going to be a sense of human rights, and not because we take it somewhere else, but because it works here. It solves our problems. It enables people to come together while maintaining their diversity. So when I leave the court, I’m going to have more than enough to do, just to carry on, maybe telling something of our journey to people who didn’t go through that. And also reflecting on our successes on the court, which have been enormous, but also accepting the criticisms of our failures.
Will you be writing more? You had a new book out recently.
Albie Sachs: Yes. Last year I was on sabbatical leave. Every five, six, seven years we can take a few months off, and I was a Ford Foundation “Scholar in Residence.” All with capital letters, all the way through! And Monday to Friday, very, very industriously from ten in the morning ’til about six in the evening, I just sat and wrote, and revised and revised, and wrote. And this book came out, The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law, with a very conscious attempt to distill some of the major experiences of being a judge, and the extent to which they depended on looking back at a rather astonishing life that I’ve lived, or that happened to me.
I never set out to be a judge. I never imagined I would be a judge, but I became a judge almost by an accident of history. I’ve loved it. I love meeting judges in other countries. I had a glorious lunch at the U.S. Supreme Court. I met judges from the top court of the United Kingdom. I met judges in Kampala from all over East Africa and in different parts of Africa. We used to say, “Workers of the world unite.” Now I say, “Judges of the world unite.”
We just have to do what we can to insure certain basic, fundamental, decent values of human dignity: no torture, I believe no capital punishment, no indefinite detention without a trial. Just certain fundamental things, whatever your circumstances, whatever your constitution. And also, law as something that can help the desperately poor — it can be meaningful in their lives — that brings people together. For me, it’s been a life wonderfully, wonderfully enjoyed. I look back on it with a sense of achievement at having been part of that tremendous process.
Justice Sachs, what do you know about achievement now that you didn’t know when you were younger?
Albie Sachs: When I was young, I learned to dream. I learned to imagine doing impossible things. I learned to feel that we have just one life that can be very rich. It can be very special, it’s really up to us. I don’t think that’s changed really. The details, the formatting of it, the experiences have changed. I’ve had to rethink a lot of things about happiness. I thought you would just be happy, and then — personal happiness — you’d meet the right person, you fall in love and you just become happy. I thought that everybody who had money would be happy. Poor people are unhappy ’cause they’re short of bread and they can’t go to school and so on. I discovered rich people are unhappy. I discovered you could meet someone you loved very much, you’d been through a lot together, but somehow you weren’t happy together. Life in that sense is a much richer, more nuanced experience, in many ways much more wonderful because it’s not automatic.
When I got an award from the South African government, I was interviewed afterwards by a young journalist. “Tell us Justice Sachs, what message do you have for the youth of South Africa?” And I felt, “Oh, that’s so boring.” As a young person I hated messages from important people who’d come to school and speak about the stormy seas of life and so on. And I said, “Well, my only message is I hope that they are as irreverent and as cheeky and as ebullient as we were as young people, and that they don’t listen too much to people like myself.” But I do like them to listen a little bit, sometimes. What I want more then anything, I don’t want them to feel they’re being lectured to, and they have to try and model themselves on the heroes of the past. That’s awful. There’s only one hero in a person’s life, that’s yourself. You’ve got to find qualities inside yourself that maybe weren’t able to come out before. And you draw inspiration from the lives of others, but you’ve got to be your role model. I feel very firmly about that.
I want young people at least to acknowledge idealism, that idealism does mean something in the world. It’s great to become important, it’s maybe nice if it’s important to you, something important in the sense of you doing something important for the world, to be successful in your ambitions and your career, to have achievements. But there’s nothing like that quality of leading a decent, dignified life, meeting up with other people who have similar ideals, expressing kindness and love and curiosity and challenging and argument and the excitement of ideas. Ideas can be marvelous. I’d like young people to feel all of that, and they might come up with solutions completely different from anything that we wanted, but to do it in dignity. That’s what I hope to see.
What do you think will be one of the big achievements in the next quarter century? In South Africa, the rest of Africa, the world?
Albie Sachs: I remember at the time of the millennium, people looked at predictions made before, and almost none of them came true. A whole range of other things happened, so I think unpredictability is something we’ve got to live with.
Gosh, what I would love to see is disarmament, ending of nuclear weapons. I would love to see race becoming less and less and less significant. By “race” I mean all the stereotyping about people and individuals. I would love to see diversity being celebrated. It’s great that we’re different. It’s not something threatening, not forcing people into mainstream ways of doing things. I would love to see more joy and fun and laughter and dance and expressiveness. People are very timid. They’re very scared of being badly thought of or doing the wrong thing. You shouldn’t be afraid of doing the wrong thing, otherwise you’ll never get to the right thing. You take chances, and sometimes you want to cry because you’ve done something and it wasn’t correct. But you learn from that, you move on. I’d love to see people generally more adventurous. I’d love to see less risk and danger in the world, whether it’s danger from automobiles or from famine or floods or threats, danger from your partner. So many people are terrified of their partners. It just hurts me so much that you can’t love somebody and be close to somebody and express yourself physically to somebody, and (you) feel terrified. And yet it’s so common in all countries, amongst rich and poor. It’s just not a class thing or a color thing. Oh, there are lots of things I’d love to see.
Justice Sachs, it’s been an honor to sit down with you. Thank you so much.
Albie Sachs: Thank you for having me here.