Albie Sachs: "A hero is a sandwich you can get in New York”


By Bill Sullivan

What’s it like to participate in a successful revolution? To write a new constitution? Albie Sachs, who helped to end apartheid and build a new democracy in South Africa, will present “The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter”  at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 30, at Hennage Auditorium. A reception and book signing will follow. The event is free and no ticket is required.

Justice Sachs played an important role in South Africa’s freedom movement, and he paid a dear price for his activism. As a young lawyer he defended people fighting the apartheid regime. He was imprisoned twice, placed in solitary confinement and held without charge. Living in exile in neighboring Mozambique in 1988, he was the victim of a car bomb. Sachs lost an arm and the use of one eye in the attack.

But when the long reign of apartheid came to an end, Nelson Mandela appointed Sachs to South Africa’s new Constitutional Court. He took part in the reconciliation process and helped write the country’s new constitution, and he authored the court decision ruling that gay marriage had to be permissible under their constitution.

We asked Justice Sachs a few questions in advance of his visit to Williamsburg.

Colonial Williamsburg: What initially made you pursue your activism?

Albie Sachs: I was born into it. My mom worked as a typist for an African leader, my dad was a labor organizer. But I hated [that they assumed] I would automatically follow their ideas. Only when I met a young crowd at university with the same values did I become active.

Colonial Williamsburg: Were you ever pessimistic about the possibility of changing the direction of your country?

Albie Sachs: Our slogan was “Freedom in our lifetime.” It took longer than we expected. There was never any doubt that we would succeed. The only question was whether each one of us had the courage to take the blows along the way.

Colonial Williamsburg: How do you define patriotism?

Albie Sachs: Patriotism can be shallow, my country right or wrong. And patriotism can be deep, thoughtful and humane. Our basic theme was that South Africa belonged to all who lived in it, black and white together. Those of us fighting for freedom against the oppressive, racist state were the true patriots. Mandela spent 27 years in prison as an alleged traitor. Today he is honored as perhaps the greatest political figure of our times.

Colonial Williamsburg: What parallels do you find in the histories of South Africa and the United States?

Albie Sachs: Paul Robeson, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were all heroes of my generation in South Africa. Intellectuals read Du Bois and Langston Hughes. We adored Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Monk. There was a great overlap of the anti-racist struggle. Later, we got huge support from American students and faculty who demanded divestment of college funds from firms trading with apartheid. We learned about the need for all patriotic, anti-racist people to work together in a principled and non-paternalistic way to achieve our goals.

Colonial Williamsburg: How are the young people of South Africa being educated about their history?

Albie Sachs: Just as George Washington and later Lincoln became exemplary figures in the U.S.A., so Nelson Mandela has become the role model for new generations of South Africans. Robben Island, where he was locked up, is visited by thousands. Our constitution, which he signed into law, is widely respected as a document that embodies all the values of the freedom struggle.

Colonial Williamsburg: How are South African citizens engaged in the process of creating a better society post-apartheid?

Albie Sachs: We work, study and play together as equals. The better society comes not so much from grandiose plans as from the details of our common endeavors.

Colonial Williamsburg Who are your heroes?

Albie Sachs I don’t like the idea of heroes. My heroes are the unheroic people who, quietly and unsung, did beautiful things in their daily lives. I get called a hero all the time. I respond that a hero is a sandwich you can get in New York.

On Monday, in another lecture open to the public, Sachs will speak on the subject of “Working with Mandela: The Constitutional Process in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” at the William & Mary Law School, Room 141 at 12:50 p.m. “Soft Vengeance,” a documentary about his life, will have its world premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C. on April 5. The Kimball Theatre is also screening Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom through April 4.


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