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Albie Sachs
Albie Sachs
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Albie Sachs Interview

Constitutional Court of South Africa

July 3, 2009
Cape Town, South Africa

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  Albie Sachs

You were very young when you began practicing law in South Africa in the 1950s. What was it like when you started out?

Albie Sachs: I was still 21 at the time and we could win cases then. There was space in the law courts. And if we lost a case, we would go on appeal. I got some very good training from experienced attorneys who had been doing cases like this for many years. I enjoyed the cut-and-thrust when I would walk down into the high court with my gown on the little mosaic floors. Bum, bum, bum, I'd feel my gown flying. I felt kind of proud, you know, special. You'd go into court, the first year was terrifying. Terrifying. The judge would fire a question at you, "But what about this case?" Or that book, or this rule of law, rule of court or that statute. It never happened, but I was terrified. After one year I just forgot that fear completely and I enjoyed cross-examining. I enjoyed arguing with the judges. I enjoyed the appeals.

Albie Sachs Interview Photo

You've said that you encountered what you call "apartheid linguistics" in the courtroom.

Albie Sachs: It was so tough being called an advocate, a lawyer, an attorney in an apartheid court, even with decent judges. The judges were white, the prosecution was white, the lawyers were white, the accused were frequently black. So it was really, as Mandela once said, "I should get equal justice, but I feel I'm a black man in a white man's court. I shouldn't feel that." Even outside of the obvious racism in many of the laws, there were racist assumptions in the court that were so taxing and enervating. The judge would say to an African woman twice my age, "And, Rosie, what did you see next?" He might say it in a very kindly voice. I couldn't call her Rosie. She was Mrs. Shabalala. But if I called her Mrs. Shabalala after the judge had called her Rosie, it's like I'm giving him a little punch, and that could be bad for my client. The judge and the prosecution would speak about "five Bantus," "five natives." These weren't natives, these were people. Five men, five men and women. But if I challenged the use of language, then it was like I was having a go at them and my client could suffer. So even in the very simple way you expressed yourself, you either compromised with derogatory or undignified terminology, or you became contestational on a peripheral issue that didn't deal with the guts of the matter and your client could suffer as a result. It cost so much psychological energy to find ways of avoiding that, neither the one or the other. You just say, "Uh huh," you know, to the witness, not using either term. The racism in that sense impregnated everything about the court from the beginning to the end.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Things took a turn for the worse in the 1960s. What was that like?

From 1960 onwards it was dreadful -- 1960, the year of the massacre at Sharpeville, 69 people shot dead, mostly in their back. The ANC -- African National Congress -- banned completely, the leaders banned, the newspapers banned, the Pan-Africanist Congress banned. The Communist Party had been banned for ten years already. Everything driven underground, impossible state of emergency. And then things became much, much grimmer. An attempt was made in 1961 by Nelson Mandela to call for a national convention to negotiate a new constitution for South Africa. He came from the underground to do it. It was just ignored completely. The government, to show its force, paraded with armored cars and airplanes, like to say, "We are not going to change. White supremacy forever in South Africa. We will have a place for some traditional black leaders in the rural areas. They can do things in their own way. They must never dream of having a vote and being equal with the rest of us." It was a very grim period. The ANC then decided, "We've said, 'Nonviolence, nonviolence, nonviolence' forever. Where has it got us? Things are worse now then they were even 40 years ago." And the first bombs went off. Now Nelson Mandela is the Commander-in-Chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC -- "Spear of the Nation." And then became the repression, the 90-Day Law, the Sabotage Act, the law being turned into an instrument of total repression, detention without trial.

In the 1960s the security police were empowered with the 90-Day Law you mentioned. What was your experience with the 90-Day Law?

Albie Sachs: The repression from 1962-63 onwards changed everything in the courts as far as political cases were concerned. You still had very erudite judges who had all the punctilio of legal form in the higher courts, but the law was transformed now into an instrument of oppression. You could be plucked out of your home, your work, walking in streets, in my case going into my office, at the whim of a senior police officer. No charge. Locked up in solitary confinement, no knowledge of why you've been locked up at all. No contact with lawyers, no contact with families, just you, yourself, alone in a little concrete cube.

I saw my clients being picked up one by one, one after the other, and had a most terrible experience of somebody who came to my office and she said, "My name is Beauty Solwandle. I'm married to Looksmart Solwandle." And I'm getting all tense because I know she's gonna ask me that he's been detained under the 90-Day Law. And there's nothing I can do. The law gave us no scope. There was no habeas corpus, there was no remedy and I'm trying to say -- and she's telling me her story slowly, "...and he was in this police cell and he was taken to Pretoria." And I want to say, "Mrs. Solwandle, there's nothing..." And she said, "And I got the news yesterday that he was found hanged in his cell." He was the first political detainee -- sadly the first of many, many in South Africa -- to be killed under torture. And I said, "Well, at least we must try and get a post-mortem, an investigation." And we got lawyers to do that. And something came out and the magistrate just accepted everything from the police. All the bruising on his body, he found excuses for that. And we didn't get very far.

Albie Sachs Interview Photo

But not long afterwards I, myself, was in a cell on my own. I remember walking around in this little concrete space. The door slammed. The echo that's slamming in my ear and so, this is what it's like, this moment you're dreaming of. You're in the freedom struggle, and you're going to be locked up, and will you be brave and what'll it be like? And I'm walking around, and I'm singing and I'm whistling, and I'm trying to keep up my courage. There's a mat on the floor, there's a little toilet in there with a wire thing that you can pull. And five minutes, ten minutes, I don't have a watch, 20 minutes. The time goes so slowly. It's just you, your toes, the wall, your toes, the wall, looking at what to do, no one to speak to, nothing to do, nothing to occupy yourself. It was far worse than I've ever imagined, far, far, far worse. I thought you just had to be brave. You bared your chest. Let the enemy come. Let them do their damnedest. And in a way, you're fighting your own loneliness, your own eagerness to have someone to talk to.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

One day passes, and another day and another day and another day, and you never know when it's going to end. You get your food. I'd be allowed out to enter a little yard for exercise. I would run round and round, favoring my right leg, and then round and round the other way favoring my left leg, and I would sing and I would whistle, and I tried to keep up my courage. And one day I hear whistling, and I can't believe it, because it's not just the general noise. Prison is noisy.

People screaming, screaming, shouting, doors being slammed, everybody shouting, and I hear whistling. And I whistle back, and then I hear the whistling coming and I tried out the ANC freedom songs and there was no response. And I'm wondering, "Who is it? Somebody else in solitary confinement?" And we made a connection, and it was the "Going Home" theme from the Dvorák "New World" Symphony. (Whistles.) And I hear from far away in the prison. (Whistles.) I don't even know who it is. I don't even know who it is. And this was a wonderful form of contact. And then I would do exercises as part of my regime, and I'm in the middle of trying to do a hundred press-ups and I hear the whistling, and I say, "No, I'm only up to 75. Please wait, wait, wait. Can't you wait?" And then we had to kind of establish a time during the day where we would be ready for the whistling. And I never found out who it was.


Albie Sachs: Not until I came out of prison. That was months later. Her name was Dorothy.

She had seen me once in exercise and she thought, "Gee, Albie is so brave." She'd heard my name and I saw her sitting there and I thought, "Gee, that woman, whoever she is, she's so brave." We each thought the other was brave. I was crying inside. I was wretched. And our lives actually met up with -- years later when I went into exile into England. She was there. She came there and we spoke and she married an Englishman. And years later, after I was blown up, and my like second exile in England, she got in touch with me. And when I set up the South African Constitution Study Center to prepare for a new constitution, I asked her to be my assistant. She said, "Albie, no. I'm too old." And so I said, "No, Dorothy, you must." And she did. And she came back to South Africa when I went back to South Africa afterwards.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

What kind of relationship did you develop with the guards while you were detained?

Albie Sachs: I was very worried about myself. I thought, "I don't hate them. If I'm a serious freedom fighter, I should hate them." But I just saw Flicky, a guy doing his job as he saw it. "Advocate Sachs..." They called me "advocate," like attorney. "Do you mind if I tell you a joke?" I was dying to have someone speak to me. "No, no. Go ahead." "There was this child who swallowed a little coin and his mother said, 'We must take him to the doctor,' and his father said, 'No, no, no. We must take him to the lawyer. He'll get the money out of him much quicker.' Do you mind if I tell you that joke?" And, you know, it was such a weird situation, that he's still respecting me as a policeman, he's respecting me because I'm a lawyer and treating me as a human being. He wasn't from the security police. And I couldn't imagine killing him or hating him. I could imagine living in the country with someone like him, who is kind of all right, you know, on a one-to-one basis. Maybe with the black prisoners he was much harsher, but I didn't feel that. He didn't have that edge. And when occasionally he would speak about...there was a black constable and Flicky would say to this constable, but not in a bullying way, "Fetch some water for the boss." So I was the boss. I'm in prison as an enemy of the state trying to overthrow the state, but I was called the boss. You know, the racism just went everywhere.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Albie Sachs Interview Photo

At times it was quite painful that your whiteness, whether you liked it or not, followed you all the way through. Even when I was blown up afterwards, my white body counted for more than the bodies of black people who were blown up, who were tortured far more severely than I was tortured. The world, the press, the media, controlled by people -- white themselves -- seeing the world through white eyes. Not even maliciously, just automatically. That's their standpoint, their point of reference. And so my amputation, my body counted for something. And then I had to think, "Well, what do I do about it?" And I said, "Well, it gives me access. It gives me a chance to speak." The New York Times had a full page spread, "Broken But Unbroken," with a lovely picture. At least I can be like an ambassador for all the others whose voices aren't heard. I must use this space and opportunities that they've got, even if they come with a privilege, to fight for justice in our country. But at times it was painful, even in prison.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

I might say I discovered years later, after democracy was beginning to come to South Africa, and I was interviewed by Anthony Lewis, a columnist for The New York Times, about my attitude to the white guards and the others, and I explained that I felt I ought to be more angry than I was. And I said, "There's something wrong with me." He said, "You know, I've just spoken to Nelson Mandela. He said the same thing. And I've spoken to Walter Sisulu -- said the same thing -- and Ahmed Kathrada, who said the same thing." And I realized I belonged to a culture, a generation based on the values of the Freedom Charter. We were fighting against a system, a system of injustice. We weren't fighting against a race. We were fighting for a better country, a better society. That system, which had not only oppressed and imprisoned black people in terms of their hopes and their possibilities, but imprisoned whites in fear and narrowness and inwardness and arrogance and greed. That's what liberation meant. That's what emancipation meant.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

How did you survive your detention?

Albie Sachs: I barely survived the 90-Day detention. It was the 90-Day Law. You could be locked up for 90 days, and somebody comes to the little cell that I was in and gives me back my tie and my shoelaces and my watch. I had been without a watch for 90 days. I used to hear the City Hall clock chiming and that would give me the hours. To this day when I hear that City Hall clock chiming, I get an uneasy feeling. And on Sundays I would hear the bells, the carillon playing, and I can't get pure pleasure from that. I get a little bit cold. I feel a sense of shock. This beautiful thing of bells playing on a Sunday, joyous bells, and I start shivering. And now I get my watch back and I go down the stairs and the station commander meets me. I go to his office and he says some nice things to me. And I get a phone call from my mother and he said, "Yes. No, he's all right. He's fine. He's being released." I'm very suspicious, and I said goodbye and I walk out of his office and I'm walking to the street and a policeman comes in and says, "I'm placing you under arrest." So they released me for two minutes and then I'm in for another 90 days. That's how you play with the law. I take off my tie, my shoelaces go, my watch goes, I'm back in the same cell.

And I started having some out-of-body experiences then. Very strange. I'm lying on my little cot, and I would feel Albie is lifting out, looking down on me. And I'm not a person given to a spiritual view of the world in that sense. I'm a great believer in the human personality and spirituality in that sense, but not an out-of-body experience. But I had them. They were quite, quite strong. I'm a little bit worried, but I carry on, I do my exercises, I run around the yard, I do my press-ups.

Suddenly one day they come and say, "You're being released." Now it wasn't after the second 90 days, it was after another 78 days. So now I'm a little more hopeful. I get my tie back, I get my watch back, I go downstairs, I look around, there's no policeman to arrest me again. And I put on my running shoes. I'm in the center of Cape Town. I've grown a big mustache. It was the only thing I could do where I felt I had some self-determination. And I ran all the way through Cape Town and through an area called Green Point, and down to the coast, further than I'd ever run in my life, about eight miles, dreaming, I'd always dreamt of, if I'm released, if I get through this, I'm gonna go to the sea. And I go down the steps, and by then my colleagues, the lawyers in Cape Town in their suits, have driven up, and they saw me there, and they're waiting for me in their smart lawyer suits, and I'm looking a bit crazed. I was a bit crazed. And down the steps and I just flung myself into the sea. It was absolutely triumphant on the outside. Inside there was something crushed, something deeply unnerved by these weeks and weeks and months of just being on my own.

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