Remaking South African Law

Albie Sachs is helping to write the constitution for a future, nonracist nation. INTERVIEW: ANTI-APARTHEID LAWYER

ALBIE SACHS, a soft-spoken white South African lawyer driven into exile 23 years ago, was clearly overcome with emotion as he hugged Nelson Mandela with his left arm at Lusaka's international airport. His right arm, severed at the elbow by a car bomb two years ago, tried to close the embrace, emphasizing the poignancy of the moment. The two lawyers had last seen each other nearly three decades ago, before Mr. Mandela was jailed and later sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in a plot to overthrow the white minority government.

Mr. Sachs, who was detained in 1963 by the South African authorities as an outspoken lawyer who defended black activists, went into exile in Britain in 1967 after his second spell in solitary confinement.

``A lawyer can survive one term of imprisonment, maybe two - but not more,'' he said in an interview in his Lusaka Hotel after the reunion with Mr. Mandela. Sachs is one of a small but influential group of whites in the upper echelons of the African National Congress (ANC) who have been central to its intellectual life. He is one of scores of white lawyers who, over the past three decades, have been politicized by defending anti-apartheid activists. Sachs also has a political background. His father, Solly Sachs, was a prominent trade unionist and a controversial member of the South African Communist Party. Albie joined the ANC's nationwide defiance campaign at age 17.

In 1978, Sachs visited the newly independent black-ruled state of Mozambique and felt so at home that he stayed for 10 years, serving as research director at the Mozambican Justice Ministry.

Human rights guarantees

It was here that the quiet intellectual set about formulating a range of human rights guarantees for a future South African constitution based on democracy.

He says the best formula is a strong parliament and a bill of rights enforced by a strong judiciary to protect South Africa's cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity.

Mr. Sachs is at pains to persuade whites that their future in South Africa is best served by not opting for any special political protection - as Zimbabwe's 100,000 whites tried to do by securing 20 guaranteed parliamentary seats. Sachs believes the success of any guarantees depends upon their being for the whole population and not select groups.

``It is very much in the interests of whites to become part of the majority and not to set themselves up as being part of a beleaguered minority,'' he says, stressing that he was speaking in his personal capacity. But his views represent mainstream ANC thinking on a new constitution.

In his 21st year of exile - on April 7, 1988 - Sachs was approaching his automobile outside his apartment in the Mozambican capital of Maputo when everything went blank.

``The next thing I remember was darkness, confusion, and arms tugging at me. I thought I was being kidnapped by South African agents,'' he says.

In fact, he was being rushed to a hospital; a bomb had been wired to the door of his automobile. As he lay in the darkness of a Maputo hospital a voice told him that he would have to face the future with courage.

``Then someone said the word `car bomb' and I felt a tremendous sense of elation that I had survived,'' Mr. Sachs says.

Albie Sachs's only weapons against apartheid have been his incisive legal mind and his literary pen.

``I once carried a rifle as a cadet at high school, but I always had a vision that one day someone would come to kill me and I wouldn't know how to release the safety catch.''

He describes himself as a pacifist by nature, but not by philosophy: ``The armed struggle came to me. I never went to the armed struggle,'' he says, referring to the ANC's decision in 1961 to resort to a limited campaign of violence after 49 years of nonviolent resistance to apartheid.

Mr. Sachs survived 21 years in exile only to become the likely victim of shadowy South African agents who operated worldwide to disrupt the activities of anti-apartheid activists.

Last week a judicial commission in Pretoria began a public probe into these official - and quasi-official - ``hit squads.''

Human rights groups have named at least 45 activists believed to have been assassinated within the country over the past decade by units operating under the command of senior police and Army officers.

Hit squads kill opponents

In recent years, an increasing number of exiles have been gunned down or bombed by roving assassins in neighboring black-ruled states and even as far afield as France. This is believed to have been the work of a secretive military unit known as the Civil Co-operation Bureau.

The circumstances of the attempt on Sachs's life have not yet been disclosed, but neither he nor the Mozambican authorities have any doubt that it was the work of agents under the direction of the South African military.

Despite the attack, Sachs remains a dogged optimist about the prospects of a nonracial democracy in South Africa.

``Broad sections of the white community are taking pride in the international prestige of their compatriot, Nelson Mandela,'' he says. ``They are beginning to think as South African nationals - not as whites.''

Soon after the bomb blast, Sachs learned to write with his left hand and now uses a word processor to publish his ideas about guarantees for minorities in a new South Africa.

He shows no trace of bitterness toward the faceless assassins who tried to kill him. He wanted to meet the man arrested by the Mozambicans in connection with the attack.

``I was very anxious to meet him,'' says Sachs. ``I wanted to confront him with the reality of a human being. I couldn't bear the cold, passionless act of `taking out' another human being.''

The meeting never took place, but Sachs still talks about a ``soft vengeance.''

``When I was in hospital in Britain, a very good friend said: `Don't worry, Comrade Albie, we will avenge you.'

``I started thinking about what vengeance meant - an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an arm for an arm,'' he says.

``But that is not what we are fighting for. If we are the same as the other side, then what is it all about? If we can achieve a democratic South Africa in which all are equal - that is the finest vengeance. This is the soft vengeance - to have a different morality.''

The sense of elation that Albie Sachs experienced on surviving the car bomb remains with him today - particularly when he thinks about going home.

He has told the leadership of the ANC that he is ready - even impatient - to return to Cape Town, the scenic Atlantic Ocean port he left reluctantly 23 years ago. His elderly mother in Cape Town will believe it when she sees him in the flesh.

``In 1984, when the revival of the anti-apartheid movement raised my hopes, I telephoned her and told her to put a chicken in the refrigerator,'' says Sachs with a smile. ``In 1986, when the emergency was declared, I told her to take it out again.''

QR Code to Remaking South African Law
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today