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Albie Sachs

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Albie SachsThe former struggle advocate and judge on expectation vs reality, the price of freedom and the foundations of South Africa’s Constitution

One person’s normal is another’s abnormal.  Growing up in an immigrant Jewish family who were committed communists, with my mother working for  ‘uncle’ Moses Kotane, Secretary General of the ANC – in a Cape Town home with frequent comrades of all colours visiting was my normal.  We grew up in a world where the size of your house, car or the number of servants you had wasn’t an issue but at the same time I had no choice but to go an all boys whites only school, which I knew was unjust even then, but I also knew I was growing up in a world that was trying to combat the whole system not just that school.  

A strong moral code is with you your whole life.  I’ll never forget coming home from SACS Junior School where I was a boarder and proudly saying to my mom ‘look I’ve still got my penny’.  This was my fare money home and my mom angrily pointed out that this was a public service and you’ve got to pay the conductor.  I explained he was upstairs – then you go upstairs she explained and made me return with the penny!  Years later with my own small son Michael on the London underground, where everyone lies about their child’s age, I was so aware of not ‘cheating’ that I always made a point of buying a ticket for him.

Being the ‘first’ isn’t always a good thing. When I was 20 I made headlines as the ‘first’ white student to be banned.  Racial categories enabled you to be the ‘first’.  I couldn’t see why I was arrested just for talking at a meeting on the Grand Parade.  They felt that black people were happy unless agitators, like me, ‘stirred them up’.

People’s dignity matters.  When I first started practicing as an advocate I found it hard to watch what was patronising at best and insulting at worst.  The different way a judge would talk to black and white witnesses.  Mrs Smith would be addressed as such and the black lady as ‘Mary’.  As much as this made you angry your main concern was saving your client from the death sentence!  Decades later when we wrote the new Constitution we made sure that law and justice knitted together and everyone’s dignity was intact. To bring change in a way that would empower the disempowered and bring the marginalised in to the politics and government of the country.

Freedom is our most precious possession.  Nothing can prepare you for the horrors of solitary confinement.  After 168 days in prison I remember running into the sea at Clifton, where I now live, feeling joyous, fantastic.  That was on the outside - inside something crashed.  I didn’t know then that two years later I’d be back in prison.
Out of something bad can come good. There I was lying on the street in Maputo in 1988 after my car had exploded.  I was in total darkness and knew something terrible had happened.  My first thought was they’ve come for me – the South African secret police. A fear I lived with on a daily basis.  Just then I heard a woman’s voice saying I was in a Mozambican hospital and the explosion had been a car bomb.  I fainted, but into joy.  Knowing they hadn’t got me.  The funny thing was that even though I lost my arm and sight in one eye that explosion blew away a lot of the misery and sadness I had after prison. Recovering in 1988 in London I thought if I had survived my country would also recover.  

Dreams can come true.  Receiving news that funding had been secured to work on a new constitution gave me even more reason to get better.  A very special moment was sitting at Kadar Asmal’s kitchen table in Dublin with Oliver Tambo who, with his marvellous gentility and tact asked if I would do a draft of the constitution.  I had no books or documents with me but that wasn’t a problem.  A bill of rights comes from inside.  It’s not a copy of anything.  You’ve got to feel it, intuit it.  A blank piece of paper and a pen was all I had as well as learning to write with my left hand.  All the themes that were discussed at that table ended up in our bill of rights.  These are simply the core themes of human experience.

Nothing can take away your sense of belonging.  When I left South Africa in 1966 I really believed apartheid would last another ten years only – then I’d be home.  It took much longer yet when I got the call to come home I was taken by surprise.  I was in Lusaka working with the constitutional committee.  Zola Skweyiya turned on the radio and we heard the BBC say the ANC was unbanned – wow.  Six weeks later I came home – to my real home.

Expectation is often better than reality.  When you wait for something your whole life and then it’s there, suddenly there’s nothing left to wait for.  That’s how I felt about the 1994 elections.   Even though I knew it was an absurd thought I couldn’t help feeling what had some of these people in the queue done towards this moment – is it fair they should have the vote the same as me?  But at the same time I was constantly pinching myself that all this was really happening.

People always look for negatives.  We’ve won our freedom and do have robust discussion.  It’s proof of a democracy that our biggest growth industry is our stand-up comedians from every sector of society.  South Africans have a great capacity to laugh at ourselves.  Although people like to complain, and there are things that could be better, when you turn on a tap water comes out and when you switch on a light, mostly, you get electricity.  And our airports are some of the best in the world.

Don’t underestimate our Constitution.  It took six years to put together with input from millions of South Africans who wrote in.  I can’t see it being changed.  This would take a 75% majority and to my mind it’s very, very unlikely.



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