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Justice Albie Sachs


Justice Albie Sachs - Survivor and resilient human rights fighter

by Rhonda J. Prepes, April 24, 2013

Fearless life-long human rights activist, lawyer, author, and history maker, Justice Albie Sachs spoke at the 2013 Sol and Florence Kanee Distinguished Lecture Series on April 11, 2013 in Winnipeg, his only Canadian stop on this speaking tour presented by the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.

His lecture was entitled “Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter” taken from the title of one of his books which won the Alan Paton award and chronicles his response to the 1988 Mozambique car bombing where he lost his arm and the sight in one eye.

Sachs started, “Suddenly everything went dark. I knew that something terrible was happening to me. If I was alive, I didn’t know. If I was dead, I didn’t know.  Just total, total obscurity. And into the darkness I hear a voice speaking to me in Portuguese saying, ‘Albie you are in the Maputo Central hospital. Your arm is in a lamentable condition. You have to face the future with courage.’ ”

“And into the darkness I say, ‘What happened? ’ ”

“And another voice says, ‘It was a car bomb.’ And I fainted back into the obscurity but with a sense of total joy. That moment that every freedom fighter is waiting for – will they come for me today? If they come for me, will I be brave? Will I get through? They’ve come for me. They tried to kill me and I’d survived and I felt fantastic. I felt in total certainty that as I survived my country would get better.”

While recuperating in a hospital in London, he received a note from a freedom fighter that read, ‘We will avenge you.’

And Sachs thought, “We will avenge you? We're going to cut off the arms and blind in one eye the people who did this? Is that what we are fighting for? Is that the kind of country we want? The thought came to my mind that if we get democracy, the root of law, the respect for human dignity in South Africa that will be my soft vengeance. Lilies and roses will grow out of my arm is the phrase that came to mind.”

Soon after the attack, Sachs learnt that one of the persons responsible for placing the bomb in his car had been captured in Mozambique.

“And I said to myself, If he's put on trial and if the evidence is insufficient to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and he is acquitted, that will be my soft vengeance because then we will be living under the rule of law. And that is far more important than sending one person to jail.”

While working on the constitution, Sachs met Henry the man who had placed the bomb in his car. 

“We had never met before. We had never fought over love, money or job. He was on that side and I was on this side. And now we were starting to speak to each other.”

“We get to my chambers and we talk. Eventually I say, Henry I have to get on with my work. Normally when I say good bye to someone, I shake that person’s hand. But I can’t shake your hand. Go to the truth and reconciliation commission and tell them what you know. Maybe one day we will meet again.”

Sometime later at a party Sachs sees Henry again and “Henry says, ‘Albie I went to the truth and reconciliation commission and I spoke to them.’ I said, Henry, I’ve only got your face to tell me that what you are saying is the truth. I put out my hand and I shook his hand. He went away beaming. I almost fainted.” 

“Henry is not my friend… but, we are starting to live in the same country. Instead of being enemies, we are now both people living in the same country and accepting the basic norms. And he has given the truth and information that he had to give as part of becoming a new South Africa.”

Sachs took his son young Oliver to the spot in Maputo where he was blown up "to understand why his daddy looks funny and how it came to pass. We go there … and we are sitting down and I am cradling him with my left arm, so I can’t see his face and I said, ‘Oliver, I was just over there and I was going to go to the beach and I opened the car and ‘boom’. That’s when I was blown up and some people came and they put me in their van and they took me to the hospital and the doctors were wonderful…’ I can explain all that. Then I try to tell him about why (it happened) and I can’t. I can’t tell him about apartheid. I don’t want to be the person who connects him up with the past where his mommy and daddy would have been breaking the law if they had loved each other and conceived him. I don’t want to tell him that black people and white people were fighting. I don’t want him to hear that from me. It’s part of our history, he’ll learn it but, not from me. I just say it was some cruel people who put the bomb in my car.” 

The audience was welcomed by Sergio Glogowski, President Jewish Heritage Center, who said, “Albie Sachs exemplifies the lessons that the Jewish people have learnt through centuries of bitter experiences leading us to the Holocaust. We need to focus and human rights for ourselves and for all people.”

Madam Justice Freda Steel Manitoba Court of Appeal introduced Justice Albie Sachs as “a judge with a unique sense of fairness, decency, and humanity.”

She said, “As a judge on the Constitutional Court for 15 years he was responsible for many Pioneering decisions including declaring capital punishment a violation to the fight to life, making it unconstitutional to stop gay and lesbian individuals from marrying, and ordering the government to provide drugs to pregnant women to prevent the transmission of HIV to their children.”

“Justice Sachs has travelled to many countries sharing South African experience and healing divided societies. He teaches lessons in soft vengeance, telling us that the oppressed don’t have to learn the language of the oppressors. That instead of punishment and vengeance, we can look to apology, reparation and reconnection.”

Chief Wilton Littlechild Commissioner, Truth and Reconciliation Commission Canada and board member CMHR spoke of the parallel journey between black South Africans and the Aboriginals in Canada.

Anita Neville concluded the evening and thanked Albie Sachs by saying that through his life- long work “he has inspired us all and motivated us all to be better people.”

Justice Albie Sachs has risked his life and lost a limb and one eye, but never lost hope in the human spirit to find justice and a culture of respect for all. He is the author of 13 books and has received fourteen honourary doctorates. He has won praise and recognition from all over the free world for his achievement in placing South Africa as a leader in the recognition of human rights.

The Sol and Florence Kanee Distinguished Lecture Series is presented annually by the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada (JHC).  The centre preserves and shares information about the history of the Jews of Western Canada, in particular Manitoba, and raises awareness and understanding of the Holocaust.

Portions of this article first appeared in the Jewish Tribune.

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