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The 74th edition of the Peabody Awards, the oldest and most prestigious ceremony devoted to celebrating excellence in electronic media, will take place this Sunday in New York, and a host of familiar productions will be among its honorees: The Americans, Cosmos: A Space Odyssey, Fargo, Inside Amy Schumer, The Honorable Woman, Jane the Virgin, The Knick, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Serial and the list goes on.
Also being honored is Abby Ginzberg‘s Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa, a compelling and inspiring low-budget documentary about the life and times of an unassuming 80-year-old man who happens to have impacted the world more than any — make that all — of the above.
Albie Sachs, who was born in Johannesburg in 1935, played an instrumental role in the decades-long fight against Apartheid (spending years in jail and exile and surviving a car bombing that blew off his right arm) and in the design of a new nation after that government-imposed system of segregation finally fell (a lawyer, he helped to write its new Constitution and served on its equivalent of the Supreme Court, authoring a landmark opinion legalizing same-sex marriage). Many other men and women were involved with both of these causes. But few of them were white, as is Sachs.
Prior to seeing Ginzberg’s film, the latest of several excellent docs the ex-lawyer has made about distinguished members of the legal profession, I was only vaguely familiar with Sachs’ story. My mother is also South African and her father — my grandfather, whom I never met — served as an advocate in the South African court system alongside Sachs, fighting similar uphill battles and experiencing similar governmental interference. But it wasn’t until I saw this film, with its magnificent array of talking heads (from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg to the man who tried to kill Sachs) and archival footage (including disturbing images of Sachs in the moments after the car bomb went off), that I fully appreciated the depth, breadth and importance of his contributions to “The Rainbow Nation.”
What compelled Sachs to become involved with the anti-Apartheid cause as a young man, even though it made him a pariah to some friends and relatives who didn’t share his open-mindedness? What makes him, a man who was tortured in jail and targeted outside of it, such a fierce and unwavering advocate of nonviolence? What was it like fighting side-by-side with Nelson Mandela and, after Mandela’s release from prison, being appointed by him to the highest judicial post in the land? And how does he feel about the problems plaguing South Africa today and its prospects for the future?
I asked the proud family man — the father of two forty-something children with his first wife, fellow activist Stephanie Kemp, and an eight-year-old with his current wife, architect Vanessa September — all of these questions and many more when we sat down for an extensive conversation earlier this month in New York, where he was being presented with an honorary degree at Columbia University.
How did this documentary come about? Has it been in the works for a long time?
No. Abby I met in the 1970s when I was in exile — I was a law professor in England and I came to the States, basically doing anti-Apartheid work, and there was this bubbly bright student, I think at Stanford. That was the first connection. And then maybe every five, 10 years, I’d come to the States and we’d meet up. So she’d been interested in the anti-Apartheid struggle, but had never been to South Africa. Finally, in 2009, she decided, “I’m going.” That happened to be the year of my last year on the Constitutional Court, which is like your Supreme Court — we have a 15-year term — and she said, “Albie, would you be interested in a film on your life?” She knew I’d be leaving the court soon. And I said, “Let me think about it.” She was surprised — she thought I’d say, “Yeah, wow, yippee!” I said, “Show me something that you’ve done.” She’d done a film on Thelton Henderson, I think the most senior African-American judge in California, and Cruz Reynoso, the first Latino on the California Supreme Court, and I liked them. There was a lovely movement, a nice feeling, she wasn’t straining too hard — so I said, “Okay.” So the idea was launched in 2009, then she raised a bit of seed money and we got going and it was quite interesting. Abby’s strong, she’s forceful, she knows what she wants; Albie is quiet and soft and he knows what he wants; and we had lots of tussles all the way through. She claims she was very patient with me — she would let me just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk — and I claim that I was very patient with her. But then the problem wasn’t so much conceptual; it was financial. You do everything “right” and the money doesn’t come, but you sit next to the right person at a lunch in a far-away place and the money comes. [Laughs] That was in Nairobi. The vice president of the Ford Foundation was visiting and I was invited to join them for lunch — I wasn’t even a host — and I chatted to him. He’s now the president of Ford, Darren Walker. And he said Ford was planning to commemorate the 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa, which was also the 20th anniversary of their presence in South Africa, in 2014, and he thought the film would be just right. And I’d had a lot of connection with Ford — I’d worked with them in exile and in South Africa with the artwork in the Constitutional Court — so suddenly the money was there, and with the money there it meant we could get fantastic archival film and we could go to Mozambique, where I was blown up, and interview people. People came out — they saw us there — “Albie! Albie!” They crowded around. They remembered. The best interviews we got were people who just ran up to us in the street, not people being located. And then there was too much material. For me, the finest part of the filmmaking was the final editing — Ken Schneider deserves immense credit for that.
So you were in the editing room?
I was not in the editing room, but I was seeing cuts, and I’d say, “Don’t like the opening,” “Don’t like the ending,” “Don’t like this,” “That’s wrong” and so on. And then we got comments from different people at different stages that were very, very helpful. So the thing was being refined, refined, refined, and finally Ken got this — I think — very, very beautiful version. It just flows, it’s not trying too hard, it’s not banging the drum and it captured something of Albie, but not just Albie — our country; Mandela comes in quite strongly; the mood and the feeling of the time; the music; and the joy and the sorrows. It’s not a bleak film with sudden sunlight; it’s a kind of modulated film and I was very, very, very happy with the outcome. There were some moments and chunks in the film that weren’t easily managed. One was my being blown up. It just so happened there were camera people there on the spot — it’s not everybody who has his or her assassination [attempt] covered in that particular way, when you don’t know what’s going to happen — so that was powerful. And then, my time in prison in solitary confinement and how to convey that? We went, actually, to one of the prisons where I’d been locked up. And then visiting Mozambique itself? A very, very emotional experience. Then, how to capture my years in exile? That’s where archival film came in. It was fantastic for me to see myself wearing big sideburns — I wish I had 10 percent of the amount of hair that I had then [laughs] — young and always this very eager, serious, idealistic guy. So we got lots of material together, and then: how to tell it in a nice way?
For people who may not have seen it yet, I’d like to ask you about some of what it touches upon. To begin with, where do you think your activist spirit comes from? It started so early for you…
If it was just me, then one might have to do some kind of psychological family portrait. But I remember being interviewed by Tony Lewis for The New York Times in 1990, when Mandela had just been released, and he said, “Albie, you must be feeling very, very angry now going back to South Africa. Your arm has been blown off, you lost your sight in one eye, you were locked up in solitary confinement, you were in exile all these years, and you must be feeling very angry.” And I said, “Tony, I don’t, actually. I’m feeling very joyous. We’re going back.” “Yeah, but all those things happened to you.” So I said, “You know, I used to sometimes wonder if I’m not a ‘true freedom fighter’ because I don’t have that rage and anger, even at the guards who were guarding me inside! I felt there was a deficit, there was something lacking in me.” He said, “I can put your mind at rest.” He said, “I’ve just interviewed Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada, and they all say the same thing.” So, in that sense, it was part of a culture, a culture of people of the most diverse backgrounds and diverse psychologies, a culture that evolved over some decades, and it went with the non-racism, it went with the intense idealism and maybe, as a counter to the gross inhumanity of racist Apartheid, it went with a powerful affirmation of the potential of human beings. So I think that’s, to me, the most important element. In my own case, I was born into an activist family. My dad was the general secretary of the Garment Workers Union and my mom worked for an African political leader, Moses Katani [general secretary of the Communist Party of South Africa] — she’d say, “Tidy up, tidy up, Uncle Moses is coming,” and it wasn’t Moses Cohen, it was Moses Kathani! [laughs] So I grew up in that anti-racist environment, but I hated my parents assuming I would follow in their footsteps. So when I met a young crowd at university [the University of Cape Town] who had those same ideals, but were my peers, I was ready.
Speaking of expectations, didn’t I read somewhere that your father wrote you a letter when you were only six outlining his for you…
Yes. When I was packing up to go into exile in 1966, I found a birthday card from my dad, Solly Sachs: “Dear Albert” — this was during World War II — “may you grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation.” Now I think that’s pretty heavy to put a six-year-old [laughs], although it was during wartime. But what he was emphasizing was not just “a soldier,” but “in the fight for liberation.” So it came with my mother’s milk and my dad’s pen. You know, some people cracked up — lots of people cracked up, some people held out. I held out by the skin of my teeth. I mean, there were times when I was very close to breaking. So it wasn’t as though there was a tough inner-reserve that saw me through everything. I wavered quite often.
Would you say that the first time that you really put this worldview into practice was through your involvement in the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign?
Yes. It was very quick. Once I joined this movement — this youth movement — in that same year the African National Congress organized the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. They took the 300th anniversary of the landing of Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch East India Company person who planted the flag in Cape Town on April 6, 1652, so on April 6, 1952, whites in South Africa celebrated the beginnings of “civilization” and so on, and black South Africans said, “We’re going to mark our displeasure and repudiation of that day by defying unjust laws — being out on the streets after curfew-hour, refusing to show our passes to the police, sitting on benches marked for whites only, things like that. And I joined the campaign at the end of that year. The timing was quite important; I’d written my final exams for the year and then I could go and sit on a bench marked “non-whites only.”
And, as you recount in the film, at that time of your life “you couldn’t get yourself arrested,” as the saying goes — or rather, you could get yourself arrested, but you couldn’t get the charge to stick…
Well, I was 17, and the magistrate saw “17,” and he sent me home to my mother because I was a juvenile. [laughs]
I guess the real turning point for South Africa, early on, was the composition of the Freedom Charter, the statement of the core principles of the South African Congress Alliance that was comprised of the ANC and its allies. I don’t imagine there were many other white people who were a party to that, were there?
You know, there weren’t “many,” but I wasn’t alone. I mean, at the meeting in Kliptown [when the Congress of the People officially adopted the Freedom Charter on June 26, 1955], there were, I think, about two-and-a-half thousand people present, and maybe 30 or 40 whites were there, quite a few up on the platform — maybe a little bit more, maybe a little bit less. So it’s not a huge number, but it wasn’t as though I was completely isolated.
Were you treated differently afterwards by friends or family who did not share your open-mindedness?
I was a bit protected, in that sense, working in Cape Town as a student at the university [he went on to graduate from UCT’s Law School, as well] — it was a more accepting environment. And then Cape Town had circles. For example, I was a very active member of the film society — I loved movies, I loved the great classics — and I would go there, and I would go to Thursday night symphony concerts. You know, when I came back from exile after 24 years [split between England and Mozambique], the first day I climbed Table Mountain — I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but it was an easy walk up, right across the top, and I had just dreamt every day of doing that — and the first Thursday night I went to the symphony concert, and I remember at interval [intermission] somebody came up to me and she said, “Welcome back, Albie Sachs! For 20 years, you never missed a concert except when you went to jail!” [laughs] And it was actually a lovely reconnection. So, in that sense, I had something of a life. And my family, by and large — I mean, my mom was very supportive, and cousins and others I think admired what they saw as my courage and my idealism; they often didn’t agree with the movement I belonged to, but they weren’t hostile. I had one cousin, in particular — Ben Rabinowitz is his name — and I think it was every Tuesday night I would have one good meal. You know, I’d go to their house — I was in and out of jail, I wasn’t earning very much and it was very comforting. So in that sense I got support, I got support. But the threats were, “Who are the informers?” “Who are the police?” “Would they pick me up?” My car was interfered with at one stage — I remember the gear lever just came out; my tires, more than anybody else’s, would puncture — but, kind of, we grimly went on and on, you know?
You talk a lot in the film about the first time you were imprisoned for an extended period of time, in 1963, experiencing solitary confinement, and then subsequently in 1965, experiencing sleep deprivation. As someone who has been through those two things, is there any doubt in your mind that they constitute torture?
Solitary confinement, I think, should be outlawed. It’s designed to break you down psychologically. It’s inhuman for human beings not to have contact. And it was detention without trial. So, under our present law, it would be completely unconstitutional. You have no contact with the outside world; you’re not brought before a court; there’s no charge against you; and horrible things happen to many others once you’re in those circumstances. The sleep deprivation, to my mind, went beyond what’s called “third degree.” It would be shouting, shouting, banging the table for 10 minutes and then silence. They were working in relays. And I’m fairly sure they put something in my food, as well, just kind of as a half-smile when I said I was hungry and they gave me food. I collapsed and I fell down onto the ground and they poured water on me and lifted me up and pried my eyes open, so I would call that torture by sleep deprivation. I tried to control it, but it was controlling my breakdown — it was the worst moment, by far, of my life. And you never, never get over solitary confinement. I remember when I was in exile in Mozambique, I met an Italian senator who’d been locked up under Mussolini in the ’30s in solitary confinement and he said, “Albie, you know, you never get over solitary confinement,” and I said, “Yes, you’re right.” There’s just something so strange, so unnatural, so inhuman, that it leaves a mark on you.
We see those kinds of tactics being applied today in what many in the States call “the War on Terror.” Do you feel that they are ever justifiable? The example that’s always put forth is “the ticking time-bomb scenario.” If somebody had said that one of these tactics might have helped to prevent, for instance, the ticking time-bomb that you encountered, would that have justified them?
You know, we had to decide not as a hypothetical, inside the ANC, living in exile, when it turned out that agents were being sent by Pretoria to destroy the organization. They were captured and they were being beaten up — severely beaten up — and the information reached the leadership, and I was asked to give my advice and opinion as a lawyer, and I said, “International law forbids cruel, inhuman, degrading punishment or treatment or torture.” And Oliver Tambo, the ANC leader, said, “We use torture.” “What?! We’re fighting for freedom and we use torture?!” I couldn’t believe it. And he was bleak — he’d learned that people in his organization were using torture — and I was asked to devise a code of conduct establishing a kind of legality inside a liberation movement in exile. I’d say it’s the most important legal work I’ve done. You know, I’ve written on capital punishment, I authored the court’s decision on same-sex marriages, but I don’t think they compare, in terms of significance, to this document, which prohibited torture by the liberation movement. We put it to a conference and the conference decided unanimously: no torture. You didn’t say “torture,” you said no “intensive methods of interrogation,” or here it’s called “enhanced-interrogation techniques.” We decided no, and it’s no not because you’re weighing out the costs and the benefits and the losses and so on; it’s no because we are not like that, you know? If you’d say, “Can we pull out the fingernails or can you chop off the fingers if it’s going to save lives?” You don’t do that. In the long run, it pays because you have that core morality that unites you and you’re different from the others. People often remark on Mandela, the ANC and what they call his “nobility” and “generosity.” It came from this core philosophy. It’s about living your ideals, being coherent and consistent about them and not saying, “The end justifies the means.” So we had the equivalent of the ticking-bomb thing and we rejected it. Some people said, “You use the ticking-bomb example but it’s not limited only to ticking-bomb situations,” you know? And I’ve seen arguments in other countries, “Well, if you capture A, and A knows B, and B knows C who knows about a ticking-bomb—” You know, it just becomes a justification. But even if there is a ticking-bomb, there are things you do not do.
You only left South Africa after your second jail experience. A lot of people would have been out of there after the first, as horrific as it was. Why do you think you stuck around for as long as you did?
It was very humbling and hard for me to leave at all. And if you left from Johannesburg, you could escape, so at least there was something defiant. In Cape Town, there’s the sea all the way around, so you had to escape from Cape Town to Johannesburg and then from Johannesburg out. So I asked for an exit permit, which was granted on condition I never return — it would have been a criminal offense for me to come back — and I was stateless for seven years. So it was harsh, it was bitter for me and it was a sign of my weakness at the time; I just wasn’t strong enough to go underground — I didn’t have the guts, the courage, the strength. Our movement was destroyed and I decided — you know, you don’t get stronger each time you’re in jail — over time, “I’m getting weaker and weaker so “I must leave.” Looking back now, I have no doubt it was the correct decision.
In the film, we see you reuniting with your mother upon your return to South Africa. Had you not seen her in all those years?
No, I had seen her — I’d seen her twice in 24 years, once in England and once in Mozambique. In England, it was hard because she saw me after I’d lost my arm. I still remember my mom and my Auntie Becky and my Auntie Frida — they’re seeing me, they’re trying so hard to smile, and they’re obviously feeling terrible, and I’m keeping up their spirits, you know? I’m working so hard to make them feel it’s okay — “I’m getting on with my life, I survived, it’s fantastic” — but all they can see if their son and their nephew, you know, and maybe it’s, in that sense, harder to see than to be, in the circumstances. But I was reunited with her after 24 years back in Cape Town.
When you were writing your memoir and when this documentary was being made, I imagine it forced you to think back about April 7, 1988, the day on which you lost your arm in the car bombing, which I wouldn’t imagine you like to do all that often. Is it hard to mentally go back there or is cathartic, in a way?
Well, let me go back to what kept me going during solitary confinement. One of the things that sustained me was the thought, “I’m going to write a book afterwards.” And, in that sense, the whole idea of literature as a counter to the chaos of life and the pain of life was more than consoling, it was a source of hope. So The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs emerged from that. And then after my second detention, Stephanie on Trial [a book about his first wife] and two autobiographical books. After I’m blown up, you know, I start thinking, “Gosh, this is amazing: I’ve just been blown up and I survived — fantastic!” And then I faint and I’m coming to and I’m getting better and, “Wow,” you know, “is this what it’s like to wake up without an arm?” “Is this what it’s like learning to tie a shoelace?” “—to stand?” “—to do all the different things?” The thoughts that come in. So another book just, like, presented itself to me, and I found it — not “cathartic,” in the sense that cathartic is something that’s suppressed and hidden and it comes out and it enables you to establish an internal stability. This is dealing with chaos. It’s organizing chaos. It’s putting a structure on what seemed to be a totally adventitious, almost catastrophic invasion of my life. Now, through words, through language, through memory and through joy, I’m responding to it. That’s when this notion of converting negativity into positivity came very strongly to me, the theme of “soft vengeance.” When I got a note saying, “Don’t worry, Comrade Albie, we will avenge you!” I thought, “‘Avenge me’? Cut off their arms, blind them in one eye? Is that what we’re fighting for? If we get democracy, if we get freedom, if we get the rule of law, that will be my soft vengeance and roses and lilies will grow out of my arm!” So writing, in that sense, was part of the equivalent of the soft vengeance, the roses and lilies. And then it went together with hope, encouragement to others and then thinking about the new Constitution, and then helping to write the new Constitution, and then voting for the first time and then being chosen for the Constitutional Court by Nelson Mandela to supervise and ensure the new Constitution is carried through. So there was a continuity in all that.
In February 1990, while you were still living in exile, it became clear that F.W. de Klerk was willing to work with Mandela. At that time, was it your belief that a peaceful transition was possible? Abroad, many people assumed that there would be a civil war. What were your expectations?
In the 1950s, we’d pushed non-violence, non-violence, non-violence. The youth movement I belonged to was very skeptical, but we were loyal. In 1960, the crackdown, [the] Sharpeville [massacre]; 1963-1964, Mandela sent to jail for life, armed struggle had started, and non-violent change on its own seemed impossible. But we never let go of the idea of a negotiated transformation. So when now, the conditions were ripe, I was certainly amongst those who felt, “Hallelujah,” you know? “We’re going back home. We’re going to get it.” The country wasn’t ripe for democracy; it was overripe for democracy. Now the main antagonists were eager to get a settlement and it made a lot of sense. On both sides, there were people who were very skeptical and thought it could never work. We did it step-by-step. It was a long, hard struggle. It took us six years to get the Constitution. There were breakdowns, massacres, “rolling mass actions,” assassinations — it wasn’t just the marvelous Mandela meeting the wise de Klerk and doing a deal. We focused on getting a solution and, to the extent that we overcame one problem after the other, it gave us the confidence that the thing would work.
You say in the film that the one time you were truly scared that it might all fall apart was —
When Chris Hani [the leader of SACP, the South African Communist Party, and the chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC] was assassinated. It was 1993 and we were very advanced in our negotiations. This was done by right-wingers hoping that black rage would engulf the streets and then the army would be called in and somehow the whole democratic process would be suffocated. And that’s where Mandela emerged effectively as president of South Africa. And it was elections that saved the country. If ever there was a testament to the power of democracy, here it was. The knowledge that there would be elections saved the country from what would have been a revolutionary upsurge, with massacres and terrible violence and a racial war. There was a clear alternative: democracy. We could get the changes we wanted through the vote.
As someone who worked very closely with Mandela during the struggle and then on the Constitutional Court during his presidency, I want to ask you about his leadership abilities and legacy. Some feel that the barometer of whether or not someone is a great leader has to do with whether or not their policies endure beyond their time in office. Is it your sense that that’s the case with Mandela? He was obviously a great symbol, but did his leadership produce conditions that will live on or are they in danger of being overrun?
I think one has to understand his leadership not as simply a brilliant person — he was brilliant, he was wonderful — leading the country to freedom. He encapsulated a culture, a philosophy, a style of work that was very deep, that had been developed over decades. He was in the tradition of [South African teacher and politician] Albert Lutuli, who won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1961, I think [he was actually awarded it for 1960 but only physically collected it in 1961], of Oliver Tambo, who had a huge influence on me. So it wasn’t just Nelson Mandela. The greatest achievement of that time was the Constitution. If his legacy means anything, it is incarnated in the Constitution. The Constitution still is very deeply entrenched in South Africa. It works. Our presidents step down after two terms maximum. Our elections every five years are free and fair. People speak their minds. It’s a very open society. We have very severe problems, many we’re creating for ourselves, but what gives me enormous encouragement is that the Constitution is still firm and very meaningful in the life of the nation. So, to the extent that the Constitution represents the ideals that Mandela stood for, I would say the legacy is well-entrenched. The other thing was, during his five years, there was enormous restructuring in South Africa. All the Apartheid institutions and mechanisms were replaced. Who would have believed that the armies that were fighting to kill each other could be integrated into one force? Police force integrated? Sixteen departments of education — now there’s just one general national education system? Health integrated? It’s not just tearing down signs saying “Whites Only” for the beaches and the restaurants and so on. It’s reconstructing government. And the whole idea of having a Bill of Rights with fundamental rights, and a judiciary that can say the president — including Nelson Mandela — has done something that’s inconsistent with the Constitution and Mandela accepting that? I think all of that still remains. So, from that point of view, I would say the Mandela legacy — or the legacy associated with him — is well-entrenched. Many of the personal attributes, the style of leadership, the ways of doing things? Many people say in South Africa now they wish we still had that. And there’s a younger generation for whom he’s just “the old man,” you know, from an earlier period, and maybe some of them are a bit impatient and they feel the changes should have been more radical.
I speak to family and friends and other people in South Africa today, and I know that one of the widely-held concerns there is that some politicians have somehow become incredibly wealthy, while a lot of members of the general population feel that they have been left totally behind. Do you share these concerns? What is the thing about present-day South Africa that you find most troubling and most encouraging?
There have been profound changes in the lives of everybody in the country, and that includes the poor. The gap between the very rich and the very poor is bigger now, not because the poor are poorer but because the very rich are very much richer — extravagantly so. But the poor get water and electricity. Three million homes have been given free by the government — that means maybe a quarter of the population have moved from shacks into not-fantastic homes, but homes with electricity, water, sewage and so on. Social grants now — I think something like thirty percent of the population get welfare support, mainly children’s grants, disability grants and old-age pensions. So there’s a cushioning — instead of starvation, there’s hunger. But the inequalities are unacceptable. Unemployment is just sad and heavy. There’s still degrees of violence inside the home and on the streets that’s quite unacceptable. And the thing that I think troubles many people the most are stories of corruption at high levels. People can put up with slow change — they know it takes time — but they can’t bear it if they think some people are skimming in ways that are illegal and immoral and unjustifiable. That produces a lot of discontent. My biggest concern about the corruption aspect — and it’s not even always straight corruption, it’s when people join the organization that was the great motor force for liberation [the ANC]. In the old days, the prospects were prison, exile, torture, Robben Island, but you took those risks because you were fighting for freedom; now, many people join not with a view to advancing social progress, but advancing their own lives. And when they are corrupt, it’s not only resources being abused; they are destroying the inner-vitality of the organization, and for me that’s very worrying. I’m not anti-politican; in many parts of the world now, people are very anti-politician. I withdrew from politics when I thought, “I would love to be on the Constitutional Court,” so I’ve been out of politics now for more than 20 years myself. But countries need politicians and they’re very important elements of democracy. So it’s not being anti-politician. But it’s worrying when politics becomes a mechanism for pure self-advancement. That’s very concerning.
Many years from now, when we’re all gone, what is it that you hope people will remember about Albie Sachs?
I don’t think in terms of legacy. Maybe it’s because I want to be immortal. [laughs] I’d like to just live my life to the utmost and then my legacy can look after itself.
But it’s got to make you feel good to know that it’s a very different place than it otherwise would have been had you not put your stamp on things like the Constitution and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee…
I’m proud of that, but that’s not me — that’s me as part of a team, part of a generation. I’m immensely proud of it. Sometimes we beat ourselves up, I think, too much in South Africa — saying that is not a justification for defending the indefensible. But, in that sense, I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved, and it gives me a lot of joy to see the things I’ve personally been connected with: the Constitution, as such; the Constitutional Court, which is just a fabulous building put up in the heart of the prison in South Africa where Mandela and Gandhi had been locked up — it’s filled with wonderful artwork and it’s a very special place in itself; the decisions of our court. I’m happy I’ve written, from time to time, autobiographical books capturing those moments as part and parcel of what we lived through, to share all of those experiences. Then, at the purely personal level, I have three sons — two in their forties, one who’s eight now — and there’s a lot of joy in that, and friends and associations. So they’re all part of a kind of a fable. Fables are fabulous, and I’ve lived through a fable that was fabulous and real at the same time.