Albie Sachs, pillar of S.African justice, isn’t afraid of riots
Even after the riots that shook South Africa last year, anti-apartheid hero and former top judge Albie Sachs believes the progressive constitution he helped draft will protect the country.
ven after the riots that shook South Africa last year, anti-apartheid hero and former top judge Albie Sachs believes the progressive constitution he helped draft will protect the country.
He is not naive about the challenges facing his admittedly imperfect nation. But at 87, he has lived through enough of the arc of history to see the bend toward justice.
In 1988, two years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he lost an arm and the use of one eye when South Africa’s white supremacist regime staged a car bombing against him in neighbouring Mozambique.
He was in exile there with fellow members of the African National Congress.
After Mandela was elected to become South Africa’s first black president in 1994, he left the ANC so that he could ascend to the constitutional court, the highest in the land.
“I am not politically active, but the values I was fighting for are in the constitution,” he said.
As a young law student in the 1950s, Sachs liked to visit Mandela and Oliver Tambo in Johannesburg, where they had set up the country’s first black law firm.
They would offer the white Jewish boy who showed up at their door tea along with their insights, he recalled.
– ‘Non-racism’ –
Today, the courts that Sachs helped create come under regular attack, especially from former president Jacob Zuma and his supporters.
When Zuma refused to testify before an anti-corruption panel last year, the constitutional court sent him to prison.
Anger among Zuma’s supporters sparked the riots in July that left more than 350 people dead, in the deadliest unrest of the democratic era.
Yet Sachs believes the courts can withstand such pressure.
“The judiciary is very strong,” he told AFP in his sunlight-filled Cape Town home.
He had stayed up late the night before working on a manuscript, then risen early for a morning swim in the cold blue waters of the nearby Atlantic.
He slipped away to make coffee, but quickly returned to resume his defence of the constitution.
“The whole of parliament was involved in the creation of the constitution — the main core of people who had been inside the resistance to apartheid, in exile,” he said.
“It stands for freedom and social justice. Non-racism and non-sexism are foundational principles.”
From the beginning, Sachs said the ANC wanted to guard against the pitfalls of corruption seen in other newly independent African countries.
Instead of sharing power between blacks and whites, the constitution extended rights and freedoms to everyone equally, allowing the public to challenge the government and hold authorities to account.
Sachs recalled the broad public support for the constitutional court’s order that Zuma repay the millions of dollars of taxpayer money he had spent on his country estate.
“I was running to catch a plane and a big, burly black man stops me, throws his arms around me and says thank you, thank you,” Sachs recalled.
“I told him it wasn’t me. I had left the court years ago, but he identified me with the court.”
– Ruling against Mandela –
In its early years, the court even ruled against Mandela himself, striking down his use of presidential proclamations to speed up the transition process.
“It ruled against Mandela very early on, saying the president can’t pass the law” by proclamation, Sachs said.
Mandela immediately accepted the ruling.
For South African democracy, “that day is as important as the day we all voted for the first time” in April 1994, Sachs said.
Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, was not spared the wrath of the court.
It ordered his government, which had once refused to roll out antiretroviral drugs, to provide the lifesaving drug for free.
But despite all the advances, South Africa is still plagued with glaring problems, the retired judge noted.
“There is still gross injustice. There is still racism, massive unemployment, gender-based violence… utterly unacceptable things like the inequality,” he said.
“We are not a fair country. We are not a safe country,” he added.
“But we are an open country where people speak their minds. We are not frightened. We are very aware of our rights.”