One day I’m going into my lawyer’s building and it seemed like six huge plain-clothed police suddenly emerged like you see in the movies; somebody is tying a shoelace, someone else reading a newspaper and suddenly they spring into action and I’m not in a movie, it’s actually happening to me. They’re locking me up without trial, without access to lawyers, family, and so on.
[Albie Sachs was arrested and incarcerated for his anti-apartheid activism and work as a civil rights lawyer defending individuals affected by racial statutes and state security laws.]
I find myself in a concrete cube, nothing to sit on, a little toilet in the corner. A window high up, I can’t see out. I say to myself, “So this is what it’s like,” because you’ve been imagining all the time now being locked-up in solitary confinement. Will I be brave? Will I get through it?
And I would sing. It’s called the “90-day Law.” But after 90 days you can be released for a couple of minutes and picked up again; it’s endless in solitary confinement. I invented things to keep myself sane and occupied.
[South Africa’s General Laws Amendment Act of 1964, also known as the 90-Day Act, allowed any person to be detained, without trial, for 90 days. When that sentence ended, the person could be rearrested indefinitely under the same law for another 90 days.]
I remember trying to remember all the states in the United States of America and I wasn’t sure if there was 48 or 50. I’d remember vaguely when I was in school it was 48, but maybe it went up to 50. But I didn’t have a pencil and paper, I couldn’t write down the names. I had ten fingers and then said I could at least start with the A’s in my South African enunciation, “Alaboma,” “Ark-kansas,” and I think I got up to about 47 maximum.
And then I would sing. I would start a song with A, Always; B, Because; C, Charmaine. Now this was 1963, late 1963, so if you want to know the hit tunes of late 1963 it would have been the songs I was singing then. And my favorite became Always and I created a special verse for it. It’s important just to hear my voice, to feel my body moving around. You’re just sitting on the floor, staring at your toes, staring at the wall, your toes, the wall, your toes, the wall, your toes, the wall and three minutes have passed, it’s not even like an hour, it’s not even like a day.
[Singing] I’ll be staying here always, – year after year always, in this little cell that I know so well, I’ll be living swell, always, always. And I’d sort of waltz and twirl around and feel amused that this Irving Berlin song that he wrote as a love song to his wife and that was used by Noel Coward in a British piece of theater for upper-middle class people was keeping up the spirits of this young freedom fighter in Cape Town. [Singing] I’ll be staying here always, keeping up my chin, always, not for but an hour, not for but a week, not for 90 days, but always. And then I’d go on to “Because,” and so on.
It was much harder than I’d expected.
I would be allowed out for a tiny bit of exercise, 20 minutes each in a little yard and I would run around and around and around on my left leg and then I’d go the other way round to give my right leg a chance and I would imagine I was running to the sea.
One day I see the guards reading a newspaper and I just see K-E-N, huge headlines. I’d never seen such big headlines. I’m thinking Kenya and something happened in Kenya, has there been a disaster? I don’t understand what’s happening. And three days after that security officials who’d been interrogating me, “Come in,” and they’re all excited. They say, “Kennedy’s been assassinated and the assassin has been killed.” I don’t know what’s going on. I must have been the only person in the world who didn’t know Kennedy had been assassinated for a couple of days and they found somebody whom they could tell.
My 90 days came to an end. I’m given back my tie. The suit I was wearing was a heavy winter suit, it’s now three months later in summer. Given back my shoes with the shoelaces. I’m given back my watch. “Am I being released?” “Oh, yes, yes, you’re being released.” I’m very suspicious. I walk towards the street and I see one of my interrogators coming in. He’s smiling, he puts out his hand. I shake his hand and he said, “I’m placing you under arrest.”
So they complied with the 90-day limitation for 2 minutes. They took my shoes again, they took my tie. I’m back in my little cell another 78 days in prison. I was released as suddenly as I was picked-up and I ran to the sea feeling absolutely joyous and elated.
My colleagues from the legal profession they’d heard I’d been released and they came in their suits down to the beach which was about 8 miles maybe from where I had been released, 6, 7, 8 miles and I still remember seeing them in their suits with their shiny shoes, the waves coming up and I just flung myself into the ocean feeling joyous that I’d survived, but something inside of me was crushed. I think you never – you never get over solitary confinement. A certain sadness just lies like sediment with you for the rest of your life.