August 29, 2013

Albie Sachs Talks Justice and Absolution at Cornell

Print More

“Everything suddenly went dark. I knew something terrible was happening to me, and I didn’t know if I was alive or if I was dead.”

So began Albie Sachs, a former South African Constitutional Court Justice and an anti-apartheid activist, in his recollection of the day he lost his arm and sight in one eye when a bomb exploded in his car. Sachs, who spoke at Cornell Thursday, was the “conscience of the court” and a key player behind several landmark judgments, including one that made South Africa the fifth nation to recognize same-sex marriage, according to Fredrik Logevall, vice provost for international affairs.

Although Sachs’ story as an equal rights activist was not without struggle, he spoke of the importance of being optimistic — drawing a silver lining from even that day a bomb exploded in his car.

“I heard a voice speaking to me, saying, ‘Albie, your arm is in a lamentable condition. You’ll need to face the future with courage,’” Sachs said. When he realized he’d lost his arm, he “felt fantastic,” he said. “It’s only an arm. I’m going to live, and my country’s going to live and get stronger.”

Sachs, who formerly served as the National Executive of the African National Congress, spoke as part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies’ speaker series, focusing on “soft vengeance” — the idea that not reciprocating violence is more powerful than “proving you’re stronger than they are.”

Sachs recalled a letter he received while recovering from the explosion. The author promised to avenge Sachs’s injury.

“I thought, ‘Avenge me? Is that what we’re fighting for? Is that the kind of country we want to create?’” Sachs said. “If we get democracy, if we get rights for all, that will be my soft vengeance, and roses and lilies will grow out of my arm.”

If a suspect in the bombing was tried and acquitted because of a lack of evidence, he added, that too would be soft vengeance, because it would demonstrate that South Africans were living under rule of law.

Sachs also reflected on the time he spent in jail, when he was declared a terrorist by the government because he was a member of the ANC.

“That was an experience worse, far worse than anything I expected,” he said. “It’s pure isolation – you stare at your toes, at the wall, at your toes, at the wall, and only one minute has passed. On a good day I’d just be depressed, and on a bad day, I’d be in a deep, deep, dark depression.”

After his imprisonment, Sachs was exiled to England, and later to Mozambique. When he returned to South Africa, he helped prepare for a new democratic constitution in South Africa. He emphasized in his speech the importance of the Constitution’s bill of rights.

“The bill of rights is there for minorities and majorities; that’s its strength – that it’s not racially based,” he said. “We needed the bill of rights of our nation and for future generations.”

Sachs’s speech ended with an unexpected story: years after the bombing, he met Henry, the man who placed the bomb in his car. They talked, and Sachs encouraged Henry to tell his story to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where perpetrators were given the chance to provide testimony and ask for amnesty after apartheid was outlawed.

“For me, that was far more meaningful than sending Henry to jail, because [in the commission] we could see what held us all together and what we all believed in,” he said. “I’m not friends with Henry – I won’t phone him up and get a drink – but if he sits next to me on the bus or something, I’ll say, ‘Hi, Henry, how are you getting on?’ because we’re both living in the same country. We’re both South Africans now.”

Since his time in the court, Sachs has published numerous books and lectured at universities worldwide. He was appointed in 2012 by the Kenyan government to help vet Kenyan judges and remove those with “doubtful conduct,” Logevall said.

Original Author: Sarah Cutler