Years of torture, a 24-year exile and a near-death experience didn’t deter Albie Sachs’ dedication to advocating for equality in his home country.
Albie Sachs was not just a lawyer. He also was a freedom fighter, an anti-apartheid activist who fought for LGBT rights and gender equality, and much, much more.
In May 2016, we, six Missouri School of Journalism students, had the opportunity to sit down with the South African revolutionary. Here are six things we took away from speaking with him.
His upbringing greatly influenced his political views.
Growing up in Cape Town, the boy who would become one of South Africa’s greatest thinkers and revolutionaries of the apartheid era enjoyed a charmed upbringing. Although his mother was poor and disenfranchised under the apartheid government, Albie Sachs fondly remembers a childhood full of beachside antics and an early political education facilitated by his parents, both of whom considered themselves revolutionaries against the apartheid government.
Born in 1935, Sachs has early memories of house calls by Moses Kotane, general secretary of the South African Communist Party. Each of his parents were active members of the party; his mother was Kotane’s typist, and his father was general secretary of the Garment Workers’ Union, which he used as a vehicle to advocate for workers’ rights, even for women and black Africans.
Sachs’ upbringing undoubtedly influenced his feelings on race relations and taught him that people should be judged based on their own merits. Interactions with Kotane exposed Sachs to these values of egalitarianism at a very young age.
“I grew up in a world where it was quite natural for a white woman to look up to her boss, who was a black man, not just because he was the boss, but he commanded enormous respect,” Sachs said.
As a result, Sachs has always been socially conscious. He recalled a time when he and his brother, both little more than toddlers, visited their neighbors’ houses and insisted that they not speak ill of the German people as a whole, but only of the Nazis.
“We were politically very correct at the age of 4,” Sachs said with a smile.
Although Sachs’ early life was characterized by constant movement and cramped living conditions, he considers himself lucky to have experienced the upbringing that he did.
“We would move from one little bungalow to another,” he said. “(My mother) could get a letting for six months, usually, for the basement, so a very tiny place, but we had a fantastic front room, if you like. The beach, the sea, the imagination, the rocks, the other kids you saw — your imagination was unlimited. You grew up with a very free spirit, kind of barefoot.”
By Carter Stoddard
Music influenced Sachs and other student protesters.
As laborers sought to unionize in the early 20th century, their music became an enduring diary of their struggles against the wealthy business owners they considered unjust. This idea of opposition through music to the ruling class’s oppression found a welcome audience in a young Sachs and his fellow student protesters in the early years of apartheid in South Africa.
“Which Side Are You On,” which Sachs sings in the above video, was recorded in 1941 by the Almanac Singers, a group that included legendary folk singer Pete Seeger. However, the lyrics were written by Florence Reece, the wife of a prominent local union organizer, a decade earlier in southeast Kentucky. This time was marked by tension and skirmishes between coal miners and police officers working at the behest of mine owners.
Another favorite song of South African protesters in the early 1950s was “Joe Hill,” which Sachs sings in the video below. The titular Hill was himself a writer of protest songs in the early 1900s, as well as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Hill was executed in 1915 for the murder of a former policeman and his son in Utah in a case that drew international union attention and accusations of an unfair trial.
A 2011 biography of Hill by William Adler suggests he was likely wrongly convicted but that he eventually came to believe his most valuable contribution to the labor movement would be as a martyr.
The song memorializing Hill was written in the mid-1930s. Seeger often performed it, as did Paul Robeson, a black All-American football player who gained fame in the ’30s as an actor and singer before becoming an activist for racial equality and communist causes. Although Robeson may be better known in America for “Ol’ Man River,” it was his protest songs that Sachs and his compatriots were drawn to. Robeson became a beloved figure to protesters around the world, particularly in South Africa.
Robeson’s status as an iconic political activist came at a high cost, however. He was blacklisted in the mid-1950s after being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for supporting communism, and he became largely forgotten in the entertainment industry in the United States.
By Jason McKee
Art heavily influenced Sachs, too.
Albie Sachs’ home overflows with art: sculptures, paintings, drawings his child made. His decor is deliberate; he says his visual eye stems from artists and poets featured in the left movement: Pablo Picasso, who drew the white dove that became the symbol of the world peace movement, and Pablo Neruda, a poet who wrote about love and revolution.
The first artist with whom he came into contact was Gregoire Boonzaier, a painter “full of laughter and fun and storytelling” known for his work featuring District Six.
“He would go there (to District Six) to paint, just street scenes — the people, the buildings, and so on — because he felt a connection and it important to dignify the lives of ordinary people, not just to pick the whites,” Sachs said.
Later, when Sachs attended the University of Cape Town, he expanded his art knowledge by visiting a local bookstore, which he describes in the video below.
By Katie Yaeger
Sachs advocated for including LGBT rights in the South African constitution.
In 1996, Sachs became a part of history by contributing to a new South African constitution that addressed equality and rights for the LGBT community. When published, Section 9 was the first of its kind in the world. Because of his experience in law and the fight to end apartheid, people sought after Sachs to address women’s and LGBT rights after a series of discussions with friends, colleagues and activists such as Cecil Williams and Thabo Mbeki.
LGBT rights first came up on the freedom fighters’ agenda in 1989, a year after Sachs lost most of his right arm in a car bombing.
“We were still in exile, and the ANC had a public meeting in London,” Sachs recalled. “A guy called Peter Tatchell — who is a very active, some people say very aggressive, campaigner for, then it was gay rights — jumps up and says, ‘What’s the ANC’s position on gay rights?’”
Soon after, LGBT rights movements from all over the world, including Ireland and New Zealand, began weighing in on the issue in South Africa.
Sachs felt compelled to ensure these rights after receiving insightful letters and reflecting on the accomplishments of members of the LGBT community who worked closely with Mandela. One letter, in particular, stayed with Sachs: A freedom fighter overseas asked the ANC, “Will I have freedom when democracy comes because I’m homosexual? Will that (freedom) be denied to me?”
Although Sachs recounts the inclusion of equality in the Bill of Rights as a mundane, uninspiring process, he gives credit to the women of the ANC, who set up a decision-making conference addressing equality and nondiscrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation for the new constitution.
“It’s not the normal … It’s not like I would imagine in the U.S., where there was quite extensive mobilization, especially by homosexual people: the campaigning in the courts and the streets, the famous Stonewall resistance and the films made,” Sachs said.
Through lobbying and campaigning, the LGBT community got support in many states and, finally, in the Supreme Court. These rights and others make the South African makes the South African constitution one of the most progressive ones ever created.
By Kiara Ealy
As a feminist, he also has advocated for gender equality around the world.
Once, when truck drivers were on strike, Sachs’ mother laid in the middle of the road to stop the cab drivers from passing. It was very brave of her, Sachs recalled; a truck could have gone over her. Seeing his mother and other women politically active in labor and trade unions impacted him.
“To me, it was natural to see women making their own choices, expressing themselves, in touch with their lives,” he said.
During the apartheid era, sexism became a norm in South African culture, making it hard for women to achieve equality, Sachs said in an interview with Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. For example, under apartheid, women could not inherit property from family members who passed away; the eldest son did.
After apartheid ended, Sachs became part of the Constitutional Court. It took actions to promote equality for all genders, such as ruling the inheritance law unconstitutional and permitting women who were raped to sue the government for failing to protect them.
Sachs also worked to bring gender equality to other countries. Canadian Judge Claire L’Heureux-Dube invited Sachs to train male judges in Sri Lanka and Nepal to be less chauvinistic, according to the Commonwealth Oral History Project.
By Anadil Iftekhar
His actions since the car bombing have been guided by the idea of ‘soft vengeance.’
In 1988, Sachs was in Mozambique, where he had traveled during his exile after getting his doctorate from the University of Sussex in England. He was working in Maputo, the country’s capital, as a professor of law. It had been 22 years since he left South Africa.
That year, a car bomb nearly took the then-53-year-old lawyer’s life. The bomb led to the loss of most of his right arm, as well as part of the vision in his right eye.
But Sachs did not believe in “an eye for an eye”; he was adamantly against being avenged. Instead, he proposed his own idea of “soft vengeance,” which he describes in the video below.
Two years after the bombing, in 1990, Mandela was released from Robben Island. Sachs returned to South Africa after his 24-year exile, and the following year, he wrote “Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter” to tell the story of his recovery. It was because of this concept that Sachs became, for many in South Africa, a symbol of forgiveness.
By Rachel Foster-Gimbel