South African Judge Inspires Redemption
When he turned 6 in 1941, Albie Sachs received a birthday card from his father, Solly, a union leader in South Africa. The card read: “Many happy returns, and may you grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation.”
It would be less a wish than a prophecy. The younger Sachs would grow up to become a leading civil rights lawyer and activist as South Africa successfully struggled to free itself of the taint of legally sanctioned racial segregation and the violence it took to deprive the nation’s black population of its basic human rights.
Today, Sachs is a justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, appointed to the bench in 1994 by President Nelson Mandela and playing a leading role in writing the nation’s new constitution after the fall of apartheid. But like many soldiers, Sachs was injured in the fight. He was jailed without trial twice and spent months in solitary confinement. He lived in exile in Mozambique for decades. In 1988, he was almost killed when agents of South Africa’s security forces planted a bomb in his car. The attack left him without sight in one eye, tore off his arm and required a grueling rehabilitation, during which time Sachs had to learn to walk and write again.
This month, Sachs is in the U.S. sharing his experiences — and his message of how societies can rebuild in the aftermath of violence and injustice — during a series of community conversations sponsored by the educational organization, Facing History and Ourselves, supported by a grant from the Allstate Foundation. On Jan. 23, Sachs will arrive in Los Angeles for a talk at the SGI World Culture Center.
Sachs says his Jewish heritage has played a part in informing his activism. His parents — like most of South Africa’s Jews of that time — fled pogroms in Lithuania as small children with their families. The family’s experience of escaping violence and discrimination fostered Sachs’ parents’ political activism, which in turn ignited his own commitment to justice.
“They had a freedom-loving spirit that came through to me,” Sachs says of his parents.
He recalls that the only book he was allowed to have in solitary was the Bible.
“I was struck by the Old Testament,” he says. “Some parts are very punitive — smiting every man, woman and child, every cat and dog,” he says.
But then there is also the opposite: the words of hope in the Song of Songs, the Psalms and the prophets, Sachs says. Faced with the contrast between redemption and anger, Sachs chooses redemption.
Sachs recounts the time he met with the man who organized the car bombing that almost cost him his life. The man was about to go before South Africa’s famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“I didn’t feel I was ‘forgiving’ him,” Sachs says. “I was trying to establish a human relationship. He won’t be my friend, but if he sat next to me on the bus, I’d say, ‘Hello, how are you doing?”
Of his assailants, Sachs says: “We’re sharing one country. That’s much more powerful than vengeance.”
Justice Albie Sachs will speak at the SGI World Culture Center, 525 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, on Monday, Jan. 23, 7-9 p.m. The program is free and open to the public. For more information, call (626) 744-1177 ext. 22.
Laureen Lazarovici is a writer and social activist who lives in Los Angeles.