“We must fight for the society we want."
These were the words of former Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs at the fourth Annual Social Justice lecture hosted by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice within the Law Faculty at Stellenbosch University (SU) recently.
This year, the lecture focused on Social Justice and the Constitution: Is this the country we were fighting for? with social justice coming under the spotlight as “one of the most pressing challenges of our time, alongside climate change".
The Social Justice Lecture is hosted by Prof Thuli Madonsela in her capacity as Director of the CSJ and the holder of the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice.
In the lead up to the lecture, Madonsela said: “Its timing could not be more apt given that many are turning their back on the Constitution, with some accusing it of being nothing more than a so-called Potemkin village while others reject it as a neoliberal blueprint ossifying the status quo," Madonsela said.
Addressing a packed lecture room of just over 200 people, the retired advocate, anti-apartheid activist, writer and former judge did not waste time in answering the question of whether this was the country he was fighting for during apartheid.
“Yes, this is the country I was fighting for, but no, it is not the society we were fighting for."
The country he was fighting for, said Justice Sachs, was “a South Africa with a Bill of Rights, a free press and all the other institutions associated with a constitutional democracy". Reflecting on his memories of how the Freedom Charter was created he said, it was “not designed [by lawyers] but came from the demands of the people".
“The country we have today is the result of the people of South Africa who drafted a Constitution on South African soil through their democratically elected representatives."
A wonderful storyteller, he took the audience on the journey of his life as an anti-apartheid activist, beginning with his arrest at the age of 17 while still a second-year law student at the University of Cape Town. He also spoke of his experience attending the Congress of the People in 1955 where the Freedom Charter was adopted as well as partaking in the adoption of constitutional guidelines for a new South Africa at an ANC gathering at the University of Zambia in 1988.
The discussion was led by award-winning journalist, Lukhanyo Calata, who served as the programme director with an audience that consisted of university management, students, student leaders and staff members. The SU community was also joined by various visiting dignitaries including the Swedish Ambassador, Mr Håkan Juholt, Dr Koketso Rakudu, the youngest serving Chief of the Royal Bafokeng Nations, MEC Sharna Fernandes, representatives of the Law Faculty Trust, as well as the directors of Cluver Markotter Attorneys.
In her welcoming address, Prof Juanita Pienaar, Acting Dean of the Law Faculty, described Justice Sachs as “having penned many wonderful judgments with finesse and precision".
Jaina Lalla, a Masters student said that she agreed with his answer to the question asked by the lecture's theme, “while he does not completely ignore the ongoing issues within South Africa, he highlights the beautiful nation that South Africa is, and more importantly he highlights the power that the South African people hold with their right to speak out against things they know are unjust. As a Zimbabwean this is something that really stood out to me; and has made me realise just how powerful this right is, as it is a right that my people have not had the safety and the freedom to exercise for their own".
“I am an eternal optimist," said Sachs, but acknowledged that while South Africa is a free country, “it is neither fair nor equal, and plagued by crime, gender-based violence, corruption and dysfunctional municipalities."
These sentiments were echoed by the Rector, Prof Wim De Williers, who drew attention in his opening address to World Day of Social Justice which had been celebrated just a day before the lecture and spoke about the requirement of “our full and immediate attention" to tackle the issues mentioned by Justice Sachs as a society.
Speaking of the struggles he faced as an anti-apartheid activist and the injuries that resulted from the assassination attempt on his life in 1988, he said that he did not think of these things as “sacrifices, but rather the only options he felt would be right in response to the unjust system of apartheid".
“The only way I could be a free person in my country was to join the struggle led by African people."
Speaking about why students should support social justice initiatives, Thembalethu Seyisi, a candidate attorney, Social Justice Ambassador of the Social Justice M-Plan initiative started by Madonsela in the CJS, and a Stellenbosch Alumni chapter leader said: “It is of paramount importance for students to support social justice initiatives such as the Annual Lecture, so as to be conscientised to current social ills and to gain inspiration to start thinking systematically on how they can play their part in creating the South Africa where everyone's life is improved and potentially freed."
Throughout the lecture, recurrent themes in the life of Justice Sachs included his sense of duty, his clear understanding of right and wrong as well as his opposition to injustice that punctuates his life even to this day.
“I do get angry, especially when I see people I had been in the trenches with, becoming crooks," he said.
Despite this disappointment in his former compatriots, he remains positive and called on the youth to take up the fight for a more just society, stating that “we will find our way through the difficulties we're in right now".