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Themes Prisoners of Conscience » Albie Sachs

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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. 

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. 

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 on this theme from Albie Sachs

Albie Sachs: Solitary Confinement “A certain sadness just lies like sediment with you for the rest of your life.” Albie Sachs: Treatment in Prison “He pries my eyes open and puts me back on the chair.”

Other videos from Albie Sachs

Albie Sachs: Background Albie Sachs introduces himself. Albie Sachs: Apartheid “If a black person and white person fell in love they were in serious danger.” More +