Albie Sachs: Recipient of the 2009 Reconciliation Award

Image © Clara Tilve

JO HIGGS spoke to author, anti-apartheid activist and former constitutional court judge Albie Sachs about soft vengeance, reconciliation and the hardship and joy of South Africa’s transition.

My story starts in Clifton, and seems to be ending here in Clifton.

My earliest memories are of my mom, who was separated from my father Solly Sachs, quite a famous trade union leader. She is saying, ‘Tidy up, uncle Moses is coming!’ She was a typist for Moses Kotane, who was on the national executive of the ANC and general-secretary of the Communist Party. We had this small basement portion of a bungalow here in Clifton.

I grew up in that world and I didn’t stand a chance to not be involved. My parents lived for ideas, for emancipation, for transformation. Yet as I grew up I hated them assuming that I would automatically follow in their footsteps.

Only when I got to university was I suddenly ready. I met young people and joined the ‘defiance of unjust laws campaign’. I was in prison briefly. I suppose it didn’t stop until my turn on the Constitutional Court ended last year. In between – gosh, what a life it has been.

Looking back, it’s kind of too much – to be raided before dawn, to be banned, placed under restriction orders, and detained in solitary confinement for 90 days, then another 78 days. Two years later, I was locked up again and tortured by sleep deprivation, then to go into exile for decades. And in the middle of that, to be blown up, lose an arm and the sight of an eye. To be stateless for seven years. All of that in the life of one person, yet thousands of South Africans can tell similar stories.

When I was lying in hospital after losing my arm, someone wrote to me to say, ‘Don’t worry comrade, I will revenge you’ and I thought, are we going to chop off arms and blind people? What sort of country is that?

The theme of ‘soft vengeance’ came to me. It is the triumph of the goals, the idealism, and the spirit that brought us all together and gave us the energy, courage and intelligence to break through. It is much more powerful than hard vengeance. I thought, if we get democracy and freedom, roses and lilies will grow out of my arm and that will be my soft vengeance.

From the beginning, we weren’t fighting a race or a group of people, we were fighting an unjust system. The thing was to change the system, the systemic domination of apartheid, of racial division. Destroy that and everybody can reveal their humanity. That meant when the possibility of transformation came there wasn’t antagonism to a particular community or group. There was a feeling of joy that we are destroying the systems keeping us apart, and at last beginning to share this country.

So much travail in one life and yet so much joy, coming back after 24 years of exile, to be part of the movement for freedom, hoping to write the country’s constitution and then defending it through the courts. Turning the old fort prison into the Constitutional Court, and the pain of the past into hope for the future. It’s been one fabulous episode after another.

When I became a constitutional court judge, I got a message that Henri was waiting to see me. I go through the security door of the court, quite excited but emotionally prepared: Henri was the one who organised the bomb in my car. He was now going to the truth commission. I open the door and see this man looking at me as if to say, ‘This is the man I tried to kill.’ I look at him: ‘So this is the man who tried to kill me.’

We didn’t fight, we didn’t argue. We didn’t have any disagreements. Now we could talk. Eventually, after lots and lots of talking I stand up and say, ‘Henry, I can’t shake your hand, but go to the truth commission … Who knows, one day.’

I forgot about him. Then, nine months later I was at a party, loud music playing – end of year. I was very tired and a voice says ‘Albie’ – I look and it is Henri. He is beaming and comes up to me and says, ‘I spoke to them and I have told them everything I knew. You said that …’

And I said, ‘Henri, I have only to look at your face to say that what you are telling me is the truth’, and I shook his hand. He went away floating, I almost fainted. But I heard later that he suddenly left the party. The organisers didn’t know what had happened. Henri cried for two weeks. That moved me very deeply because we are humanising each other.

To me the huge achievement of the TRC was that people could tell their stories in public. We heard the cries and saw the tears. We saw these often-feeble apologies, and they were in the stiff body language of people who are not used to revealing their feelings, but were coming to terms with some of the terrible things they had done. All sides had to acknowledge the things they had done. It was a remarkable part of South Africa’s history, of world history. It didn’t solve the problems of injustice or transform the country, but it created a kind of moral equality based on principles of fairness and justice. It then became easier to tackle the problems of inequality, unemployment, health and so on in the country.

Just thinking back on why some of us supported reconciliation whole-heartedly: it wasn’t a compromise, or some kind of a deal that was done because if we didn’t, there would be chaos in our society. It was much more profound, much deeper than that. It was the beginning of creating equal citizenship in this country on a moral plane.

The task of reconciliation, it goes on and on. It is not as though you have achieved it at a certain moment. There are glorious periods like with the World Cup: we couldn’t have had the World Cup if it hadn’t been for these processes. They laid a foundation, a framework in which it was possible for people to express spontaneous joy and happiness without feeling they are giving up on anything important.

Now we are back to a kind very sobering reality and there is going to be lots of meanness in our society and this glorious spirit is going to be tarnished and weakened. But then we pick ourselves up again and we carry on forward.

Jo Higgs is a documentary filmmaker.

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