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Albie Sachs
Albie Sachs
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Albie Sachs Biography

Constitutional Court of South Africa

Albie Sachs Date of birth: January 30, 1935

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  Albie Sachs

Albert Louis Sachs was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. His father, Emil Solomon Sachs, and his mother, Ray Ginsberg, had both immigrated as children from Lithuania when it was still part of the Russian Empire. Under the Tsar's rule, Jews throughout the empire were subjected to constant discrimination and frequent outbursts of mob violence, with the open encouragement of the state. Memory of this oppression informed the Sachs family's view of their new country, where native Africans were denied many of the rights freely granted to European immigrants.

Albie Sachs Biography Photo
Both Emil Sachs and Ray Ginsberg joined South Africa's communist youth movement in the 1920s. At the time, the Communist Party was one of the few political organizations in South Africa open to members of all races, and the only major multiracial party to advocate racial equality. Emil Sachs, known as Solly, became the leader of South Africa's Garment Workers Union, and made it a vehicle for promoting the rights of all workers, including black Africans and women, who were shunned by other labor organizations. In 1931, Solly Sachs was expelled from the Communist Party for his independent views, but he remained a highly visible labor leader and was a frequent target of government investigation.

Albert Louis, known from childhood as Albie, was only four years old when World War II began in Europe. South Africa, as part of the British Empire, went to war against Nazi Germany, but the young Albie was aware that many of his white neighbors were sympathetic to the Nazis and their racist ideology. Solly and Ray separated when Albie was small, but Solly's example of political activism remained a powerful influence on young Albie. On his sixth birthday, with the war raging in Europe and North Africa, he received a card from his father, saying he hoped Albie would grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation.

While Solly Sachs made his home in Johannesburg, Albie and his mother lived in Cape Town, where his mother was secretary to Moses Kotane, a leader of both the Communist Party and the African National Congress (ANC). Unlike many white South Africans of his generation, Albie Sachs grew up seeing black and white adults interact as equals, and he learned to judge all men and women as individuals. His family's radical politics, abstention from traditional religion, and close association with black Africans marked Albie as different from his schoolmates. His social isolation reinforced the habit of independent thinking that has characterized his entire life.

Albie Sachs Biography Photo
The National Party's electoral victory in the South African election of 1948 led to the new policy, known as apartheid ("apartness" in Afrikaans). Massive relocations expelled black Africans, Asians and people of mixed race from areas newly designated as "white only." Schools and public places were strictly segregated and harsh penalties were imposed for interracial relationships. To Albie Sachs and his family, these measures were repugnant and they opposed them vigorously.

Albie Sachs graduated from secondary school at 15, and entered the University of Cape Town, where he soon fell in with a group of like-minded students known as the Modern Youth Society, dedicated to free thought, progressive politics and an egalitarian, multiracial society. In 1952, at age 17, he joined a campaign of civil disobedience against apartheid, the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. He was arrested for sitting in an area of the General Post Office Reserved for non-whites. He was released when the judge learned his age, but it would not be his last run-in with the law.

The government had banned the Communist Party and undertook to purge the country's unions of communists and ex-communists. Solly Sachs was ordered by the government to resign from leadership of the Garment Workers. When he refused, he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to a year's hard labor. While the sentence was suspended, the elder Sachs fled to England, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Albie Sachs Biography Photo
In Cape Town, Albie Sachs graduated with a law degree and at age 21 took up the practice of law. South Africa had retained many of the forms of the British legal system, but the apartheid regime was systematically eliminating the civil liberties of non-whites and political dissidents. Many of his clients faced the death penalty. Sachs defended mostly black clients, along with others accused of resisting apartheid and the repressive new state security laws. Even when the law was on his side, Sachs found himself continually fighting the unthinking racism of prosecutors, judges and jurors. Outside the courtroom, he was subject to constant surveillance and harassment, and his office was ransacked by state security agents.

In 1960, South Africa became a republic and severed its colonial ties with Britain. The African National Congress and other opposition groups were outlawed. While the underground ANC took up an armed struggle against the government, Sachs continued his fight for freedom in the nation's courts. In 1963, Albie Sachs was arrested, under a new law, permitting the government to detain political prisoners for 90 days without filing actual charges. Sachs spent the 90 days in solitary confinement, without contact with the outside world. When he was released after 90 days, he was immediately arrested again, without explanation, and returned to solitary. Another two-and-a-half months passed before he was released again. He was placed under a banning order, forbidding him from writing for publication, speaking in public, or meeting socially with more than one person at a time.

Albie Sachs Biography Photo
Sachs was shaken by his experience, and uncertain what course to take. Meanwhile, he had fallen in love with one of his clients, a political activist named Stephanie Kemp. Before she was sentenced to prison, she warned Sachs that he too would be arrested again. The state had enacted a 180-Day law, permitting longer periods of detention without trial, and two years after his first detention, Sachs was back in jail. This time he was handed over to a notoriously brutal officer of the state security forces and subjected to relentless interrogation, deprived of sleep for days on end, and asked to inform on other opponents of the regime.

Sachs was eventually released, along with other prisoners, but he was emotionally scarred by his ordeal. After Stephanie Kemp was released from prison, the pair decided to marry. Unwilling to risk another imprisonment, Sachs applied for permission to leave South Africa. It was granted, on condition that he never return. In 1966, Sachs moved to England, where Kemp soon joined him. They were married, settled in London, and had two sons.

In London, Sachs published an account of his incarceration, The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs. The book was widely read and was adapted into a play, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. A film version appeared on British television in 1981. Sachs received a scholarship to undertake doctoral studies at the University of Sussex. His doctoral thesis formed the basis of his 1974 book Justice in South Africa. In the book, he explored the contradictions between the fundamental principles of the South African legal system and their betrayal in practice. He also examined traditional African concepts of justice and considered their possible application in a free South Africa of the future. Sachs's next book, Sexism and the Law, was a groundbreaking study of historic discrimination against women in the legal system.

Albie Sachs Biography Photo
While Sachs took a teaching post at the University of Southampton, England, he continued to follow events in South Africa closely. He undertook international speaking tours on behalf of the ANC and became a well-known face of the South African opposition in exile. Despite his success as an author and scholar, Sachs was frustrated with life in England. He missed Africa and longed to play a more active role in the liberation struggle.

In 1975, when a black-led revolution overthrew Portuguese colonial rule in the Southern African country of Mozambique, Sachs went there to see the new multiracial society at first hand. The atmosphere of a newly liberated African country was exhilarating for Sachs, who felt more at home in Mozambique than he ever had in England. In 1977, his marriage came to an end. While Stephanie and their sons remained in England, Sachs decided to settle in Africa. After 11 years in England, he would spend the next 11 in Mozambique. He soon learned the Portuguese language and became a professor of law at Eduardo Mondlane University in the capital, Maputo.

Other members of the South African National Congress gathered in Mozambique and in neighboring Tanzania. Sachs formed a close working relationship with Oliver Tambo, President of the African National Congress. The South African government, increasingly hampered by international sanctions against its racist policies, lashed out at its enemies. It funded an armed rebellion against the government of Mozambique and sent agents abroad to assassinate ANC members in Africa and Europe.

Albie Sachs Biography Photo
Albie Sachs Biography Photo

On April 7, 1988, when Albie Sachs unlocked his parked car in Maputo, a bomb planted by the South African security services exploded. The explosion killed a passerby and left Sachs gravely wounded. Riddled with shrapnel, his ribs broken, his eardrums punctured, Sachs was rushed to the hospital. Doctors labored for seven hours to save his life. Sachs survived, but he had lost his right arm and the sight in one eye. Long months of painful rehabilitation lay ahead, but Sachs drew comfort from the thought that his enemies had seized their best chance to kill him and had failed. He told the story of his recovery from his injuries in his 1991 book Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter.

Albie Sachs Biography Photo
Confident that change was coming to South Africa, Sachs concentrated on planning South Africa's transition to multiracial democracy, and drawing up principles for a new constitution. In 1990, the South African government yielded to international pressure and recognized the ANC and other opposition groups as legal organizations. President De Klerk released ANC activist Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment and all parties began the process of negotiating a democratic transition.

After 24 years of exile, Albie Sachs returned to South Africa and was reunited with his mother. His friend Oliver Tambo had suffered a debilitating stroke, and Nelson Mandela now took the leadership of the ANC, with the mineworkers' leader Cyril Ramaphosa conducting negotiations with the South African government. Albie Sachs was appointed to the Constitutional Committee, charged with drafting a charter for a new non-racial state. Sachs became a persuasive advocate for the inclusion of a Bill of Rights and an independent judiciary in the new constitution. Sachs had seen the revolutionary regime of Mozambique embroiled in civil war and was determined that the new South Africa would allow the peaceful competition of opposing political parties. He also argued that the constitution should identify rights to housing, water, health care and a clean environment.

Albie Sachs Biography Photo
South Africa's first national multiracial elections were held in 1994. Nelson Mandela was elected President, with a ruling majority for the ANC in the nation's parliament. The new constitution, with the broadly inclusive Bill of Rights that Sachs had proposed, was adopted by the new parliament, with the support of parties across the political spectrum, including supporters of the old regime. Nelson Mandela appointed Albie Sachs to one of the 11 seats on the country's new Constitutional Court.

In his 15 years on the Court, Sachs helped place South African justice in the forefront of the legal recognition of human rights, winning praise from fellow jurists all over the free world. The court abolished the death penalty and overturned laws criminalizing homosexuality. One of the court's most important rulings placed Sachs in opposition to some former comrades in the ANC. Mandela's successor as President, Thabo Mbeki, held eccentric views on the subject of of AIDS transmission. He and his health minister had blocked the distribution of drugs that prevent transmission of HIV from pregnant women to their children. In 2002, the court ruled against the government and ordered it to provide the drugs, which the manufacturer had made freely available. In 2005, Sachs wrote the opinion in the landmark decision Home Affairs v. Fourie, legalizing same-sex marriage in South Africa. Sachs ruled that the previous ban on gay marriage violated guarantees of equal rights explicitly stated in the country's constitution.

Sachs was also closely involved with the development of the new Constitutional Court building. The Court sits on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, site of the Old Fort Prison, now a museum, where political prisoners including Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi had once been held. The Court building has won international acclaim for the seamless integration of murals, sculpture, tapestries and mosaics into its interior. As a permanent exhibition of the creativity of South Africa's people, it is a source of particular pride to Justice Sachs.

Albie Sachs Biography Photo

Albie Sachs has found happiness in his private life as well. In 2006 he married urban architect Vanessa September. In his 70s, Sachs became a father again, with the birth of their son Oliver. In 2009, his appointment to the court expired. Albie Sachs continues to write and to speak around the world, sharing the South African experience of healing a divided society.

This page last revised on Dec 04, 2013 19:47 EDT
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