Sept. 3, 2013

South African activist stresses forgiveness in talk

Albie Sachs
Jason Koski/University Photography
A.D. White Professor-at-Large Albie Sachs speaks during his first visit to campus Aug. 29.

After surviving an assassination attempt that cost him an arm and an eye, South African writer, lawyer and anti-apartheid activist Albert “Albie” Sachs came back with a vengeance – a vengeance that sought justice through nonviolent retaliation.

“Everything suddenly went dark,” said Sachs, making his first visit to campus as an A.D. White Professor-at-Large, during his Aug. 29 lecture, “Liberating the Mind and Liberating the Heart: South African Experience in Dealing With Terrorism and Torture.”

“I knew that something terrible was happening to me, but I was alive,” he said. “Through the darkness, I heard a voice saying it was a car bomb.”

Sachs, a South African Constitutional Court Justice from 1994 to 2009, added, “They tried to kill me, but I had survived.” Recovering from the attempt on his life in a London hospital, Sachs said he felt “buoyant.” But when he received a note that read, “Dear Comrade Albie: Don’t worry, we will avenge you,” he asked himself, “Is that what we’re fighting for? Is that the kind of country we want to create?”

As a member of the African National Congress (ANC), the political party committed to ending apartheid in South Africa, Sachs was branded a “terrorist” by the regime he sought to remove. He said he was subjected to violent interrogations and periods of solitary confinement lasting up to three months.

Detailing the trauma of these experiences, Sachs said: “They can keep you without access to lawyers, without access to court, your family, anybody… I never found out why I was arrested. Suddenly I was released, with no explanation to why I was detained…”

Sachs and the ANC were forced to relocate in Mozambique. In exile, they began drafting a new constitution and bill of rights for a new South Africa that would be free from prejudice.

Some years after the fall of apartheid, Sachs met the person who orchestrated the attempt on his life, a man named Henry. “We sit down, we talk … with a kind of fascination,” Sachs said. But rather than have Henry arrested, Sachs asked him to forgive himself. “[I told Henry to] come to the Truth [and Reconciliation] Commission. Tell them what you know…”

Henry eventually confessed to the Commission, a courtlike body established by South African government in 1995 to uncover the truth about human rights violations that had occurred during apartheid. “Henry’s not my friend, I won’t phone him up and say, ‘Let’s go to a movie together or have a drink.’ But if I’m sitting in a bus, and he sits down next to me, I’ll say, ‘Hey Henry, how are you getting on?’ because we’re living in the same country. We’re both South Africans now and that, really, is my self-vengeance.”

Sachs’ lecture was part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies’ Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series. While on campus, Sachs also lectured about the South African Constitution Court’s building, which is in the heart of Old Fort Prison (where both Gandhi and Mandela were held as prisoners) and about property rights and land issues in South Africa. On Sept. 4, he will present a Berger lecture, “The Fourie Case: Same-Sex Marriage in the South African Constitutional Court,” at 12:15 p.m. in the Moot Court Room; Sachs was the author of the 2005 same-sex marriage decision of that court.

Jacques Diec ’15 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.