Justice in South Africa by the book

Saturday November 25 2017

Judge Albie Sachs. PHOTO | NMG

Judge Albie Sachs. PHOTO | NMG 

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When in 2012 eminent South African freedom fighter, high court judge and lawyer, Albie Sachs arrived in Nairobi to vet magistrates, the challenges were immense.

At the time, “Why hire a lawyer when you can buy a judge?” was a cynical commonplace phrase; the unfortunate, if systemic certainties of corruption tainting Kenya’s judiciary. Yet judging judges was hardly an insurmountable exercise for someone who clearly relished clearing the nation’s Augean stables of graft and malfeasance.

Sachs covers his experiences in a collection of essays titled We, The People; Insights of an Activist Judge (2016).

He is a gifted storyteller with a sharp intellect, passion for secular fair play and not least, a giggle-worthy sense of humour.

We, The People; Insights of an Activist Judge, by Albie Sachs.

We, The People; Insights of an Activist Judge, by Albie Sachs. PHOTO | DANA APRIL SEIDENBERG

Sachs’s journey

Each generation professes its own version of noble principles. Few act on them. Fewer still sacrifice for them. Overthrowing the settler-dominated apartheid regime in South Africa was no easy walk to freedom.

In serving the cause of justice in South Africa and elsewhere, each essay can be considered a chapter in Sachs’s long, eventful life.

At the forefront of South Africa’s liberation struggle, his moral courage and selfless sacrifice place him alongside Nelson Mandela, Alfred Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Joe Slovo and Ruth First among thousands of other freedom fighters.

Inheriting loyalties to the labour movement from his activist parents, Sachs met Mandela as African National Congress comrades. What began as a struggle against apartheid and to end class exploitation led to another of Sachs’s progressive enthusiasms — championing civil liberties.

His car was blown to smithereens during an assassination attempt in Mozambique, leading to the loss of an arm and an eye — a near-fatal event. Painful stints locked in solitary confinement shadowed but never defeated his vision of a free South Africa.

Albie Sachs on the pavement moments after his car exploded in Maputo on April 7, 1988

Albie Sachs on the pavement moments after his car exploded in Maputo on April 7, 1988 causing him to lose most of his right arm and the sight in one eye. PHOTO | COURTESY OF DANA APRIL SEIDENBERG

Through decades of moral/intellectual squalor, the elusive road to a democratic, secular state in South Africa was discovered.

The freeing of Nelson Mandela and his ascendency to power in l994 led to Sachs’s appointment as one of the first 11 judges to sit in the nation’s new Constitutional Court.

In l988, together with Kader Asmal, he wrote the new Constitution’s powerfully progressive Bill of Rights and chose, in his capacity as art aficionado, several emblematic works adorning the new Johannesburg Court.

Written over 25 years in easy, often poetic prose, insights and observations abound in this spirited series of essays that are part jurisprudence and part personal reminiscence.

Using neither a schematic nor chronological approach, Sachs’s lively mind and moving commentary contribute to an ongoing discussion of still-contentious political issues that in addition to the Bill of Rights “had profound meaning for our society.”

As usable history, it is much better than the usual dull drone of the self-serving autobiography or worse, its intellectually-challenged cousin, the improvisational memoir.

Indeed capital punishment, same-sex love, homelessness, and the provision of anti-retrovirals for those living with HIV — all sections of the new Bill of Rights — is a template for future and/or revised bills of rights in other nations of good will.

Truth commission

Putting raw trauma into words seems to soften its most painful edges. Turning memories of uncompromising cruelty into defiance; torture into Sachs’s concept of soft vengeance; the success of South Africa is seen as a non-violent victory for peaceful coexistence.

Fifteen years ago, Sachs met Henri, the security officer who had left him for dead after planting the car bomb on a Maputo street. Just how does one respond to a Henri who happens to be one’s own assassin?

Sachs eyes this Eichmann in the Constitutional Court chambers and shakes hands with him, thus committing a hitman’s venal world of violence and alienation to the healing process.

“Converting pain into hope” in the spirit of ubuntu or recognising the collective value of every human being as well as “justice under a tree,” and “the traditional transparent and participatory manner of resolving disputes in southern Africa,” were the chief reasons for the Constitutional Court’s creation.

Not surprisingly, painful decisions taken by the Court often left the judges themselves in distress. Judge Sachs often questioned the Court’s theoretical concerns over ethical reasoning.

Albie Sachs excelled at virtually every endeavour he undertook. Perhaps most striking, in life and law, he placed the common good over private gain.

Judges Albie Sachs and Willie Mutunga

Judges Albie Sachs and Willie Mutunga pictured in the Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation, January 20, 2012. PHOTO | COURTESY OF DANA APRIL SEIDENBERG

Unfazed by race and class differences, with no hunger for power and little interest in material wealth, this gentle soul whom the authorities once deemed a “terrorist” is undeniably the conscience of South Africa.

The book is alive with his revolutionary vision as well as genuine love for his fellow human beings. While we lesser mortals go to our graves to disappear, his is an outstanding legacy of matchless courage and compassion that will endure.