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Albie Sachs

Regions : Sub-Saharan Africa : South Africa

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Albie Sachs was born on January 30, 1935 in South Africa and grew up under the apartheid government.

His career as a freedom and human rights activist started at seventeen, when as a second-year law student at the University of Cape Town, he became active in nonviolent, anti-apartheid protests. At 21, he began practicing law and was known for defending individuals charged under racial statutes and repressive security laws. Sachs himself was arrested by the security police, subjected to banning orders restricting his movement, and eventually placed in solitary confinement without trial for extended periods of time.

In 1966, he went into exile. After spending eleven years studying and teaching law in England, Sachs worked in Mozambique as law professor and legal researcher. In 1988, he survived a car bomb, but lost an arm and sight in one eye.

During the 1980s, working closely with Oliver Tambo, leader of the African National Congress (ANC) in exile, Sachs helped draft the organization’s Code of Conduct, as well as its statutes. After recovering from the bombing, he devoted himself full-time to preparations for a new democratic, South African constitution. In 1990, he returned home to South Africa and as a member of the Constitutional Committee and the National Executive of the ANC, took an active part in the negotiations leading to South Africa’s democratic transition. After the first democratic election in 1994, Sachs was appointed by President Nelson Mandela to serve on the newly established Constitutional Court, where he served until 2009.

Sachs has travelled to many countries sharing South Africa’s experience and discussing human rights. 

I didn’t stand a chance as you Americans would say, I didn’t stand a chance. Even my name Albert Sachs, people call me “Albie Sachs.” I was named after an African trade union leader who died shortly before I was born in 1935.

Everything about me from the moment of my birth in a sense destined me to end up in the freedom struggle in South Africa. My parents had split up. Both had come as young children from Lithuania, fleeing the pogroms aimed at Jews there and come to South Africa; grown up here with the benefits of having a white skin that came automatically with people who are classified as “whites.”

But from a community that had known oppression and that dreamt of a world in which people would be free and that was the atmosphere in which I grew up. My dad was a trade union leader. He was General Secretary of the garment workers’ union, living in Johannesburg. He and my mom separated when I was very, very young.

She worked for Moses Kotane, an African leader who was one of the top African National Congress leaders and also General Secretary of the Communist Party.

[Moses Kotane (1905 – 1978) was a South African anti-apartheid activist. The African National Congress (ANC) is a political party that served as the most prominent resistance movement against South Africa’s apartheid system, at times resorting to violence through its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. It was officially banned by the South African government from 1960 to 1990. As apartheid collapsed, the ANC’s leader, Nelson Mandela, was elected President of South Africa in 1994 and established a democratic government.]

So my very first memories are of my mom saying, “Tidy up, tidy up, Uncle Moses is coming,” and Uncle Moses was Moses Kotane, not Moses “Cohen”, but Moses Kotane, and it seemed absolutely natural. She respected him as her employer, as a political leader.

That was a real world for me as a young white child growing up in South Africa. In our small space of our home and our daily life and her friends and the things that were important to her, everything revolved around the idea of a nonracial, free, and democratic society. 

South Africa is a nation of almost 53 million on the southern tip of Africa. The nation has a unique multicultural character and is approximately 80 percent African and 10 percent European, with the remaining 10 percent being of mixed race or Asian heritage. These broad racial categories include a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groups.

Although it has the largest economy on the continent, much of the nation remains in poverty and there is great economic disparity. Historically, the mining industry has played a key role in South Africa’s economy and it continues to remain an important industry today, alongside manufacturing, tourism, and financial services.

South Africa was first settled by non-natives in 1652, when the Dutch established an outpost in what would later become Cape Town. Soon after, British, French, and German settlers came to the area. The descendants of the original Dutch settlers became known as Afrikaners. Conflicts over land and power arose between the settling groups as well as between the settlers and the native people of the region. In 1910, Britain formally created the Union of South Africa as a self-governing dominion within the British Empire.

Throughout South Africa’s history, non-whites were subjected to widespread discrimination. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the government passed a series of laws institutionalizing discrimination and segregation. In the 1948 elections, the National Party, which served as a platform for Afrikaner nationalism, gained power. The National Party program was centered on the system of racial segregation known as apartheid. Supporters of apartheid argued that South Africa was made up of four distinct racial groups: white, black, “Coloured” or mixed-race, and Indian.

The white minority oppressed the African majority and other non-white groups. Black Africans were particularly disadvantaged in terms of education, housing, income, and health. Blacks were denied citizenship and not permitted to use the services and facilities accessible by the white minority. Many blacks were forced to relocate when their neighborhoods were declared “white.” A series of laws enacted in the 1950s further codified and expanded racial segregation. In part, the National Party justified its policies by branding its opponents as communists.

The African National Congress (ANC) was founded in 1912 to advocate for the rights of black South Africans. As apartheid expanded, the ANC and other groups used both nonviolent and violent actions to combat the government. The ANC and other groups were oppressed by the government, and many of their senior leaders were banned or imprisoned. Nelson Mandela, a prominent ANC leader, was imprisoned from 1962 to 1990.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the anti-apartheid movement gained strength. Foreign governments and the international community isolated South Africa. International sanctions damaged the economy and helped erode domestic support for apartheid. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War weakened the government’s claim that yielding power would lead to a communist takeover.

In 1990, the government of South Africa took its first steps toward ending apartheid when it ended a ban on certain political organizations including the ANC. Nelson Mandela and other opposition leaders were released from prison and apartheid legislation was repealed. F.W. de Klerk, President from 1989-1994, helped to broker this transition of South Africa from the apartheid-era to a multi-racial democracy. In 1993, de Klerk and Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.

In 1994, South Africa held its first election that allowed all adults to vote, regardless of race. The ANC gained power and Nelson Mandela was elected president. South Africa enacted a liberal, democratic constitution, backed by a strong and independent judiciary. While the ANC has remained the strongest party, elections are vigorously contested and democratic safeguards are respected. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated abuses and crimes committed during the apartheid era.

Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report categorized South Africa as “free” with an overall freedom rating of two, with one being the most free and seven being the least. The country also received ratings of two in political rights and civil liberties. However, in the 2013 Freedom of the Press report, the nation was categorized as “party free” due to government restrictions on the press and the prevalence of civil cases brought against journalists for libel.

More from Albie Sachs

Albie Sachs: Background Albie Sachs introduces himself. Albie Sachs: Solitary Confinement “A certain sadness just lies like sediment with you for the rest of your life.” Albie Sachs: Bill of Rights Albie Sachs outlines why South Africa needed a Bill of Rights. More + Albie Sachs: Free and Democratic South Africa “April 27, 1994 we vote as equals for the first time. It was a glorious day.” Albie Sachs: Truth Commision “What the Truth Commission did was to convert knowledge into acknowledgment.” Albie Sachs: Treatment in Prison “He pries my eyes open and puts me back on the chair.” Albie Sachs: International Sports Boycott “People are crazy about sports. I’m crazy about sports.” Albie Sachs: Apartheid “If a black person and white person fell in love they were in serious danger.”