Wednesday 1 April 2009
Albie Sachs: "It has been a wonderful life. When I put all the things together, I can hardly believe it..."
The nightmare occurred far back in 1963 but Albie Sachs readily concedes "I haven’t got over the mental scars. Solitary confinement and sleep deprivation remain as deeply embedded scars in my soul."
"Sometimes when I am walking on a high bridge I feel like a tug to topple over. It just evokes the memory of walking from or to the interrogation cell (during a spell of 168 days in solitary confinement). There was always that feeling of whether I should throw myself over the balcony."
Albert Louis (Albie) Sachs, now 74 years of age, confesses he is surprised such thoughts continue to surface. But as he says, that shows how deep they went. In his words, there is a certain sadness deep down below.
This extraordinary man, a living testimony to the belief that the human spirit can overcome all adversity, was blown up in his car by agents of the South African apartheid regime while working as a law professor in Maputo, the Mozambique capital, in 1988. He lost his right arm and was blinded in one eye. That he survived not just to exist but make so fulsome a contribution to the life of a new, altogether better South Africa is a triumph for which this country should never tire.
Judge Sachs of the South African Constitutional Court offers an appropriately calm, sober analysis of his own survival, his subsequent life and the contribution he continues to make to South African society. The day he took the oath of office as a judge in the new South Africa, like so many others free at last from the repellent tide of poison which had flowed for so long through this country, he thought not of himself and his own incredible deliverance, but those who had not made it through the dark times.
"I thought of those who were close to me, people like Looksmart Solwandle, Elija Loza and so many others. People I was very close to who were tortured to death."
Yet he always thought he would survive, feeling that he was part of a movement that took him outside of himself. He calls it a certain stubbornness, a certain pride. There was a refusal to buckle without even knowing why, he says.
Perhaps the doubts, if there were any, came not in weighing up his chances of survival but how he could handle the life of a freedom fighter. "When you join the struggle you have the feeling that the state comes for you. You wonder in your mind, will I be brave enough to see this through. Of course, you wonder if you will survive. When you do, you feel almost a sense of wonder and a miracle."
In all, Albie Sachs spent 24 years in exile from South Africa. Long years when his great intellect and humanity could have played an essential role in helping integrate South Africa into the new world order. Such was the crass misjudgement, the blinkered approach of the apartheid regime.
To have suffered the trauma of being hunted and then physically dismembered was to understand the depths of man’s inhumanity to man. Happiness in those desperate times seemed an impossibility, a mirage on the horizon that always disappeared.
Yet life has continued to fascinate and intrigue Albie Sachs, then and now. To have been appointed to the newly established Constitutional Court and to help with the development of the Constitutional building in Johannesburg and its art collection besides its vision, was marvellous. Then, on a personal level, to have found love again (he was married before and had two sons) late in life with Vanessa, a relationship that has produced an adored son, Oliver, perhaps proves the biblical saying "God moves in mysterious ways".
"We were together for ten years before marrying and to become a father again in my early 70s, was extraordinary, a delight. Meeting Vanessa gave a huge élan to living; sharing things, having fun….just the details of every day life. We have travelled all over the world together and she is a marvellous, generous spirit with a quick mind and great sense of fun. We have been together now for 15 years and it has been such a happy time. It is an absolute bonus having a young son again. My friends are having grandchildren but I can tell you, it is much more fun to have a child at this age.
"It has been a succession of wonderful, improbable yet very real episodes. Yet I don’t buy the religious thing; I don’t feel there is a guiding hand behind me. I am very respectful of the religious beliefs of others but personally I have never felt that.
"In the deep struggle days I couldn’t marry someone that hadn’t been in solitary confinement. It was such a profound existence, I couldn’t share my life with someone that hadn’t known it. But after the achievement of democracy I felt somehow free from that need.
"I feel that we have achieved what I call my soft vengeance. It is much more beautiful than ordinary punishment. It is a huge transformation of our country that validates everything we went through."
Albie Sachs, who studied at the University of Cape Town, has written many books on human rights. His calm, philosophical demeanour enabled him to meet the person who organised the placing of the bomb in his car 20 years ago. They came face to face years later, assailant and his victim; two men from diametrically opposed philosophies brought together by unique circumstances. Sachs called him "an instrument of his side" and the security official proffered his hand upon meeting him. Albie Sachs declined.
"I told him I couldn’t shake his hand but maybe we could meet after he went to the Truth & Reconciliation Committee. Nine months later, we saw each other again and I then shook his hand. He came to see me and we had an extraordinary conversation. This was the man who had tried to kill me but we didn’t hate each other."
In Sachs’ words, the man left that meeting absolutely beaming. But he heard later, his assailant went home and cried for two weeks.
To have survived so much in those dark times, has not Sachs been left disillusioned, despairing by the cycle of violence that has increasingly stained the post-apartheid era ? No, he says in his quiet, authoritative manner, he feels no despair. "I lived for 11 years in post independence Mozambique. I saw enormous gains made but also the setbacks, the problems and the struggles. So I was prepared for difficulties.
"Frankly, the general process of change has been far less bloody and confrontational than I had imagined. The fact that we have our freedom but not security is a deep sadness. It is robbing democracy of much of its true lustre and weakens the progress we have made. But it doesn’t undermine it."
Nor does he blame particular individuals, reasoning that there are multiple causes that will require multiple solutions. So does he see a solution?
"I suspect this problem will take time to solve but to the extent that there is increasing realism and awareness to look the problem in the eye together with the economic progress that has been made, I am hopeful in the medium term that the impact of crime will be considerably reduced."
Does Sachs fear the death of Nelson Mandela, whenever it occurs, will impact disastrously upon this country? Mandela was the man who appointed Albie Sachs to the Constitutional court; the two are old friends. Yet he dismantles such a belief, reasoning that the course of South African history is set.
"His contribution has been immense and he continues to smile upon the country. But I do not believe the country’s history is now dependant on him. Of course, the loss will be felt by everybody but won’t alter the course. It is part of his strength he knew when to step back as an individual."
Sachs, the chief architect of the post-apartheid constitution, calls his job "the best in the world". In his view, to sit in a court that stands for the basic values for which he and so many others fought, to interpret and apply the Constitution that is admired throughout the world and be surrounded by so many esteemed colleagues, represents the ultimate honour. When they return from each recess, they hug each other, kiss and embrace. It is, he says, a very remarkable group of people who are intensely interesting. He finds his role deeply rewarding.
Nevertheless, is he not intimidated by the extent of the challenges confronting this country? He smiles tolerantly at my query but gently disarms it. “I feel enormous pride, very deep pride in the development of this country. We are doing a lot of extraordinary things at both cultural and inter-personal level. This is a very creative country.
"Our problems are huge and sometimes some of them we make for ourselves. But despite that I feel there is great hope for the future for our Constitutional fundamentals are sound. We have a strong judiciary which is essential. The basics are there."
But will not patience and tolerance be requisite elements in this transformation? "My experience is that the poor can be extremely patient provided they feel there is honesty in public life. People know it takes a long time to rebuild. Impatience comes from a lack of honesty."
And what of Albie Sachs himself, a man of multiple talents and interests (he is also Cricket South Africa’s representative on the ICC Code of conduct)? His simple response defines the man.
"It has been a wonderful life. When I put all the things together, I can hardly believe it..."
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