Skip to main content

Albie Sachs: From Freedom Fighter to Justice on South Africa’s Constitutional Court

Resource type: News

Charles Steward Mott Foundation | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Morris Arvoy

Albie Sachs, an internationally known human rights activist and top judge in South Africa, suffered solitary confinement and exile and survived a bomb attack by South African security agents during the arduous fight to end apartheid.

Sachs, 78, went on to help negotiate South Africa’s peaceful transition from the racist apartheid system to a constitutional democracy in the 1990s and served for 15 years on the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court.

This spring, as part of a cross-country teaching and lecture tour of the United States, Sachs visited Flint, Mich. — the hometown of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. In addition to a public lecture at the University of Michigan-Flint, Sachs also addressed the Foundation’s Board of Trustees and gave a videotaped interview in which he reacted to documentary video of his return from exile.

“Albie Sachs is a hero of the anti-apartheid movement and a leader of South Africa’s democratic revolution. Furthermore, he is an internationally acclaimed human rights activist who has faced — and overcome — great danger in his lifelong crusade for equality and justice,” said Mott Foundation President William S. White.

“The Foundation is honored to host a man who has made such a significant impact on world history. Since the first stirrings of democracy in South Africa in the 1980s, the Mott Foundation has funded programs that encourage democratic participation and human rights, areas in which Justice Sachs has always played a vital role.”

The Foundation made its first grant for work in South Africa in 1988. Leading up to the nation’s first democratic elections in 1994, Mott funded programs that helped South Africans understand their rights and responsibilities as voters. Since that time, the Foundation has supported programs in South Africa that give access to social justice for poor and marginalized people in order to reduce poverty, promote equitable access to resources and encourage a culture of self-reliance.

In 2011, the Foundation granted $150,000 to the Constitutional Court Trust in Johannesburg, South Africa, to create an oral history of the creation of the court, established as the guardian of the country’s constitution, of which Sachs was a co-author.

The Mott Foundation recently hosted Albie Sachs in Mott’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. The anti-apartheid activist and former South African Constitutional Court judge spoke about “Nelson Mandela: A Leader and a Friend” at the University of Michigan-Flint.
> View video and read transcript

The son of Jewish political activists who moved to South Africa from tsarist Russia, Sachs said his world view was informed by his family memories of state-sponsored discrimination and oppression in Russia.

As a young lawyer defending the rights of black South Africans in the 1950s and ’60s, Sachs frequently was targeted for retribution by the white-controlled government. Often imprisoned, he once was sentenced to solitary confinement for six months without a trial. Sachs was forced into exile in 1966, studying and teaching law in England and Mozambique.

Far from his homeland, Sachs continued the fight to abolish apartheid. In Mozambique he worked closely with Oliver Tambo and other African National Congress (ANC) leaders in exile. A 1988 car bomb planted by security agents of the South African government left him without his right arm and blind in one eye.

In early 1990, Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were released from prison after 27 years, heralding a new age of freedom in a country that had known only the oppression of its black population for decades. Sachs returned home the same year. He helped write South Africa’s current constitution, one of the world’s most progressive, and fought successfully for the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in the governing document. Among the constitutional innovations he advocated were equal access to housing, quality health care, clean water and a clean environment.

In an interview with Mott staff during his visit to Flint, Sachs seemed fascinated to be shown footage he had never seen of his 1990 homecoming. He recalled his first few days back in South Africa after 24 years in exile, contrasting the South Africa of 1990 with the country that has emerged since the establishment of democracy.

“We got a fabulous constitution — but it was six years later,” he said of the constitution that became law in the mid-1990s, after the fall of apartheid and the country’s first democratic elections.

“It didn’t come easily, and we had breakdowns, massacres, rolling mass action, a lot of bitterness. But in the end, we got a glorious constitution. It’s been held up to the world. And it’s a nonracial, nonsexist constitution — that’s in the foundation of the constitution.

“It’s wonderful now: South Africa becomes a lodestar, a guiding place, first of all for the importance of principled leadership enabling you to overcome problems that seem insurmountable. Secondly, no problems are intractable. Problems that human beings make can be solved by human beings.

“And we performed miracles. In fact, we’re good at miracles.”

Sachs is recognized across the globe as a pioneer in the constitutional recognition of human rights. Among the court’s decisions during his tenure were the abolition of the death penalty, the overturning of the country’s anti-homosexuality laws and the legalization of same-sex marriage. The court garnered international headlines when it allowed the distribution of medicine that prevents the transfer of HIV from pregnant women to their babies, a policy that was strongly opposed by then-President Thabo Mbeki.

Sachs served on the court until his retirement in 2009. Since then he has continued to write and speak around the world on human rights issues.

He is the author of nearly a dozen legal and biographical books, including “The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs,” which was dramatized by the BBC; “Sexism and the Law”; and “The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter,” the recently updated memoir that won South Africa’s top prize for non-fiction when it was published in 1991.

> Read about Atlantic grantees working to uphold the constitution and defend democracy in South Africa

Related Resources


Human Rights & Reconciliation

Global Impact:

South Africa