Sachs, veteran South African activist, writer and former judge appointed to the first Constitutional Court of South Africa, delivered an inspirational keynote address at the Centre for Social Justice's prestigious event. He was accompanied by his wife Vanessa.
The theme of Sachs' lecture was “Social Justice and the Constitution: Is this the country we were fighting for?". In answering the question, he took the audience on a touching journey that provided insights into the dawn of democracy and the genesis of the South African Constitution.
After Sachs was welcomed and introduced by SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers, the former justice reminisced about the country's troubled past and painted a vivid picture of the “mental gymnastics" he had to perform as a young lawyer fighting apartheid.
Sachs shared his experiences of being a teenage activist, getting arrested at 17 for protesting apartheid laws and taking part in the historic Kliptown meeting in Soweto where the Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955. Later, he would play a leading role in Zambia where constitutional guidelines were first formulated under then ANC president Oliver Tambo's leadership.
When people ask him if present-day South Africa is the country he was fighting for, the answer is easy, Sachs said. “Yes, this is the country I was fighting for. But no, it's not the society we were fighting for."
Sachs acknowledged that South Africa faces enormous challenges such as the energy crisis, unemployment, crime, corruption, gender-based violence, dysfunctional municipalities and growing inequality. “But we should not forget the massive political and social justice gains South Africa has made over the past three decades," he said.
The South African Constitution is the most progressive in the world because it is the result of a collective struggle and hard-won freedoms, he explained. “It was not designed by lawyers; it was drafted by people who fought for their liberty. It came from the demands of people who had been oppressed, imprisoned and exiled expressing a dream about the future they wanted."
The audience responded warmly to Sachs' insights and there was lively engagement in the question-and-answer part of the programme facilitated by the programme director, award-winning journalist Lukhanyo Calata.
In response to a remark about his sacrifices, Sachs made a point of saying he did not consider the injuries he sustained in an assassination attempt by the apartheid regime in 1988 a sacrifice. Even losing an arm and his left eye in the car bomb attack wasn't a sacrifice compared to what so many black people lost in South Africa, Sachs insisted. “Many black people lost years of their lives, but there are no visible scars. I get a lot of sympathy because you can see the trauma I suffered. But I didn't make sacrifices. If I had gone along with the benefits of white society during apartheid and became a wealthy lawyer, I would have sacrificed my soul, my heart, the meaning of my life. The only way I could be a free person in my country was to join the struggle led by African people."
Sachs described himself as an “incurable" optimist. “I believed freedom was possible, even when it seemed impossible. I wasn't alone. Others like Oliver Tambo and Ruth Mompati and Aziz Pahad and Joe Slovo and so many more shared this dream. We all believed we could get a democratic South Africa and we did, against all the odds," he said, adding that “there are not many of us left anymore, we need to share our stories …"
Sachs said despite all the disappointments of recent events in South Africa, he remains hopeful. “But I do get angry, especially when I see people I had been in the trenches with – people who once were brave and whom I admired – becoming crooks. Somehow power did something to them. It hurts. It really hurts," he lamented.
It was also painful reading the Zondo Commission's report on state capture and corruption, Sachs admitted. “And yet part of me says 'wow'! Our government set up the commission. Our Chief Justice sat on the commission. It's not just a few brave journalists who came forward. Our people demanded exposure and were vocal about justice. So, the very information about the corruption that hurts so much in a way is also a source of pleasure. The rot is not hidden away. We know what is wrong. In that sense our institutions are working because we can still access the truth."
Sachs said the fact that South Africa has had six free and fair elections since 1994 is a sign that our constitutional democracy is working. “When politicians are voted out, they step down. Our presidents don't stay on for life," he noted.
There is also reason for optimism that our Constitutional Court is a beacon of justice, and that South Africa has a lively press that are free to criticise the government, Sachs said. On a lighter note, he added that it is an excellent sign that one of South Africa's biggest growth industries is stand-up comedy. “It says something about our country. We can laugh at ourselves, and we can do healthy introspection. We are free."
Sachs described his optimism about South Africa as the same kind of elation he felt after the car bomb attack when he realised he had “only" lost an arm. “I had the total conviction that as I got better, my country would get better. I have that same feeling today." He reminded the audience that South Africa is a wonderful country with amazing people, a brilliant constitution and all the mechanisms to make it work. “We will find our way through the difficulties we're in now," he said as he called on young people to join the struggle for a better and more just society.
Sachs received a standing ovation from the audience that included several SU dignitaries, diplomats as well as the Chief of the Royal Bafokeng, Dr Koketso Rakhudu, Minister Sharna Fernandez (Department of Social Development, Western Cape government) and Stellenbosch Mayor's representative Councillor Patricia Crawley.
In her vote of thanks and concluding remarks, Prof Thuli Madonsela, Director of the Centre for Social Justice at SU, captured the mood perfectly when she said she was at a loss for words. “I am unable to find words to express my sense of awe and gratitude for your amazing lecture today; what you have done for our country throughout your life and just who you are." Madonsela backed Sachs' suggestion of not waiting for the law to bring about positive change and she praised the young people in the audience for their participation in social justice causes. “Nobody in this room tonight created the mess that 17-year-old Albie Sachs found himself fighting against all those years ago. But you must agree with me, it's our mess now and we must fix it," she said.
- The fourth Annual Social Justice Lecture was presented by SU's Centre for Social Justice in partnership with Cluver Markotter Attorneys in Stellenbosch.