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What It Takes - Albie Sachs

What it Takes - Albie Sachs
What it Takes - Albie Sachs
What It Takes - Albie Sachs
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0:00 1:02:42 0:00

00:00:00 MUSIC: DREAMZ

00:00:08 ALBIE SACHS: Everything was totally, utterly, completely dark and silent.

00:00:15 MUSIC: DREAMZ

00:00:22 ALBIE SACHS: And through the darkness, I heard a voice saying, "Albie, this is Ivo Garrido. You’re in the Maputo Central Hospital in Mozambique. Your arm is in lamentable condition. You have to face the future with courage." And into the darkness, I said, "What happened?" “It was a car bomb.”

00:00:49 MUSIC: DREAMZ

00:01:03 ALICE WINKLER: The year was 1988. The remarkable man telling the story is Albie Sachs, a South African lawyer and a freedom fighter, who would go on to help draft his country’s constitution and serve as a justice on its Constitutional Court.

00:01:20 ALBIE SACHS: I fainted back into the darkness again, but with a sensation of total joy and euphoria. I’d been aware of something terrible happening to me, of this darkness enveloping me completely, of being pulled, people speaking. I thought I’d been kidnapped, to be taken back from Mozambique into apartheid South Africa.

00:01:51 And I remembered, vaguely, shouting, "Leave me, leave me," in English and in Portuguese, but not too loudly because I was in a public place — and then feeling angry: “If they’re going to kidnap me, at least they can put me in a car with decent springs,” because I felt the pain as we jolted along. And then back into the darkness. I’m suddenly conscious and feeling very light, lying flat on my back, and I tell myself a joke, a joke about Himie Cohen, who, like me, is a Jew.

00:02:28 He falls off a bus, and he gets up, and he does this, and someone said, "Himie, I didn’t know you were Catholic." "What do you mean, Catholic?” “Spectacles, testicles, wallet, and watch."

00:02:40 ALICE WINKLER: Okay, to get Albie Sachs's joke and the rest of this story, you’ve got to picture him telling it, making what looks like the sign of the cross with his left hand.

00:02:49 ALBIE SACHS: And I started with testicles — all in place; wallet; my heart is okay; spectacles — I feel my head. There’s no crater there. And then my hand slides down, and I discover I’ve lost my arm. I’d only lost an arm.

00:03:14 Every freedom fighter goes to sleep every night wondering, "Will I wake up in the morning?" Every day: "Will I get through the day? Will I be brave when they come for me?" It had happened to me, and I’d gotten through, and I fainted back into delirium.

00:03:30 ALICE WINKLER: In this episode of What It Takes, Albie Sachs will take you through the extraordinary events in his life that led up to this moment and the equally extraordinary events that followed. This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement.

00:03:49 I’m Alice Winkler.

00:03:51 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:03:57 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:04:03 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:04:08 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:04:16 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:04:23 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:04:28 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:04:42 ALICE WINKLER: Albert Louis Sachs was born in Johannesburg in 1935 in a hospital that sits directly across from what’s now the South African Constitutional Court. His parents were Lithuanian, Jewish, white. They’d fled persecution in Europe, only to land as refugees in a country that excelled at brutally persecuting its black and brown citizens. Albie Sachs’s parents met in South Africa as young rebels, communists, idealists.

00:05:15 His mom went to work for a leader of the African National Congress. His dad became head of the Garment Workers Union. It was inevitable, Albie Sachs says, that he would grow up hell-bent on fighting injustice.

00:05:29 ALBIE SACHS: The other thing, also, was that material possessions were really very unimportant in our home. We lived actually very modestly but filled with ideas, and a world filled with ideas was also a world filled with fun. Sometimes people feel that you get rid of all your possessions but you become very severe, and you don’t enjoy food, you don’t laugh, you don’t dance, you don’t sing, but it wasn’t like that at all.

00:05:55 And the other thing — sadly, my mom and my dad split up when we were very young. There were lots of strong women around, so I grew up something of a feminist without the ideology, just with the situation in which I lived.

00:06:10 ALICE WINKLER: He totally identified as Jewish, by birth, by association, by culture, by history, but he wasn’t religious. When he was four, World War II broke out, and he remembers it dominating his childhood. South Africa joined the war effort on the side of its close ally, Great Britain, but given South Africa’s own history and population, there were a lot of people with Nazi sympathies.

00:06:35 ALBIE SACHS: There was a clandestine, quite active sabotage movement — which supported Hitler in South Africa — of extreme right-wing Afrikaner nationalists who were very anti-British and also very racist. That was around. There’d be strange things when you went to a cinema. They always ended with playing “God Save the King,” and you were expected to stand, and most people would stand and some would sit.

00:07:01 That was their way, their little way, of publically showing their opposition to the war. Occasionally at school, we would have memorial services for a kid whose dad was killed in the war, and there’d be a kind of a gloom, and we would sing, "Abide with me; fast falls the eventide."


00:07:25 ALBIE SACHS: It still resonates in my head. This is, you know, six decades or more later, but it was done in that funereal way. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t tears for someone close. It was kind of institutionalized sorrow, but it was part and parcel, and perhaps the tough part was preparing young boys to kill and to be killed, to be soldiers. Courage, courage was the big thing.

00:07:52 Would I be strong? Would I be brave? And would I win the Victoria Cross? — The highest award given to soldiers for heroism, usually dying in battle, saving your comrades. That was the number-one quality, courage being determined by flying a plane and shooting down the Nazis.

00:08:13 ALICE WINKLER: But his mother was friends with a number of German refugees, and she taught Albie and his brother to resist stereotypes. He was really little, but he would scold other kids for saying that Germans were bad. "Only the Nazis are bad," he'd say, "not all Germans." Since his parents were divorced, Sachs and his brother lived with their mother in Cape Town, scraping by, moving from rental to rental, living in hand-me-down clothes.

00:08:42 He felt like an outsider. He remembers taking comfort in a book of fables, and one story, in particular, about a young man from a poor rural family who sets out to see the world.

00:08:54 ALBIE SACHS: And he passes through a forest, and it’s a thick, dense forest, and he requires enormous perseverance to get through. And then it’s the desert, and it's crossing the desert, and the sun is beating down on him, and his mouth is tight with thirst. And then a high mountain, and then the ice and snow, and eventually he gets to the other side, a kind of a kingdom. And, of course, as these stories end, he’s triumphant, and he’s made the king, and he gets the bride, and it ended happily.

00:09:29 Now, I’d forgotten that story completely until I was in solitary confinement in prison.


00:09:41 ALICE WINKLER: But during this conversation with the Academy of Achievement, which took place in Cape Town in 2009, Albie Sachs resisted a question from the interviewer about his real-life heroes and role models.

00:09:55 ALBIE SACHS: To be candid, I don’t like the idea of role models. There’s only one role model, I think, that matters, and that’s you. And the question is not to try and be like someone else. I think of, like, two great personalities who were locked up in the prison where we’ve now built the Constitutional Court — Gandhi and Mandela — but you can’t be like Gandhi.

00:10:21 You can’t live with a dhoti today and have that strict diet, and you give up sex and eating food with salt — and he didn’t consult his wife, by the way, when he gave up sex. It was his response to a moment, a period in history — Gandhi. You know, if you’re not six-foot tall and an African man, you’re not going to be even physically like Mandela, let alone — you’re not going to spend 27 years in jail.

00:10:54 You can’t emulate that. And then you say, "Well, I can never be like that. That is so heroic in terms of the imagination. That leaves me out," instead of saying, "What can I find in myself? How can I interrogate myself? How can I be my own role model? — Drawing from the experiences of others, what other people have done, what they’ve achieved, the dilemmas they’ve had, how they have overcome. All that will help me, but I must be my own role model and not try to copy someone else."

00:11:24 ALICE WINKLER: Sachs started carving his own heroic path when he was studying law at University of Cape Town. He was just 17 years old, but he decided to take part in the first major, multiracial protests against apartheid. It was called the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. It began on April 6, 1952, timed to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the Dutch settlement of South Africa.

00:11:53 ALBIE SACHS: And so to celebrate it as the day of the beginnings of what was called civilization in Southern Africa, as though African people didn’t have a culture or civilization, history or past. And the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign started on that very day to challenge this idea of white hegemony — that the whites are the centerpiece of existence, of history, of meaning in the world — when black people voluntarily sat on park benches marked “whites only,” traveled on buses marked “whites only,” crossed on bridges marked “whites only,” went into what were called “locations,” where black people lived without a permit to be there, were out on the streets without carrying their documents, their passes, that black people had to present to the police all the time.

00:12:46 And I was at the very first meeting in Cape Town when one of the leaders of the African National Congress named Johnson Ngwavela voluntarily defied an order — we called it “the banning order” — put upon him, placed on him by the minister of justice, prohibiting him from attending any political gatherings. And he came into this little hall, and we all stood up and sang, and we sang freedom songs.

00:13:13 It was a very emotional moment, and they called for volunteers to join the Defiance Campaign. And I was dying to volunteer. And my friend Wolfie Kodesh with me, he said, "Shh, shh. No, no, Albie. Whites can't join." I said, "Why can’t whites join? It’s a non-racial struggle against racism." He says, "No, no, no, no. You can’t." I remember holding onto the seat, clinging onto it to prevent myself from being hurled up with all the others rushing to sign that they wanted to be volunteers.

00:13:44 And he said, "Look, I’ll speak to some of the leaders, and we’ll see." And it was only in December, so that, several months afterward, a small group of whites — four whites in Cape Town — were allowed by the organization to join. Looking back now, I can see, of course, it had to be a struggle by the oppressed black people, manifested under their own leadership, organized by themselves, and then whites could come in at a later stage to demonstrate that very point. But at the time, it really hurt me as a young and anti-racist idealist.

00:14:22 ALICE WINKLER: When Sachs and three other white activists did finally get to participate as volunteers, they sat on the nonwhites’ bench at the General Post Office, writing defiant telegrams to the prime minister and refusing to move.

00:14:38 ALBIE SACHS: And it became a little bit farcical because they wouldn't arrest us. The minute any black person defied any law, they were just whipped off to jail. And finally, the police arrived. By then there was a huge crowd, and again, I remember, with some amazement, these tall colonels from the police force came and said, "We have to place you under arrest."

00:15:05 And I stood up. And I was the youngest in the group, but I was officially the leader, and I said, "Mayibuye iAfrika!” (Africa, come back!) And the crowd shouted back, "Afrika mayibuye!" And when I think of it now, you know, where did I get the guts? — Age 17, in front of these police. And the next thing, we were locked up. And you join the freedom struggle, and you always imagine being in jail. And here we’re in jail, and we’re a little bit cocky, the three men and one woman.

00:15:40 She was on her own. And an hour or two later, we’re in the magistrate’s court, and it’s packed, and the journalists are there, and it’s the first time whites are joining the Defiance Campaign, giving it extra newsworthiness. And then the magistrate looks at the docket, and he says, "I see there’s a 17-year-old youth." And it’s me.

00:16:04 So I’m not a brave revolutionary freedom fighter. I’m a juvenile. "Are any of his parents in court?" My mother stands up, and she was very proud of me, and I’m very proud of her. And he says, "I’m sending you home to your mother." That was very humiliating for this young guy. But it was a kind of a breakthrough, where you put yourself on the line, and in the end, the Defiance Campaign was crashed by very severe state action and so on.

00:16:37 ALICE WINKLER: Three years later, Albie Sachs was proudly there at the Congress of the People, where the Freedom Charter was adopted. That was the document basically laying out a vision for South Africa's future after apartheid.

00:16:50 ALBIE SACHS: That was a totally different vision of South Africa. It started off, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and together we will fight until there's justice for all.” The police came. They were armed with what were called stun guns. They came on horses. They surrounded us. Everybody had their names taken. There could have been a massacre then. We stood up. We sang. We sang, we sang, we sang freedom songs.

00:17:17 We kept our calm, and on the basis of the Freedom Charter, saying virtually, "Everybody, open the doors of education for everybody, the doors of learning and culture for everybody, homes and security for everybody," the leaders of the campaign were put on trial for treason. I was raided. I was constantly raided by the police, but I was never put on trial for treason.

00:17:40 I was placed under what were called “banning orders” — which prohibited me for five years from attending any gatherings, from speaking to other people who were banned, and a whole range of prohibitions put on me. In one way, it was nice. It cut out a whole lot of meetings. We spent our lives in meetings, talking, talking, talking, talking nonstop, and the only meetings would be underground.

00:18:05 We’d be very careful in any important meetings, with great security. And the '50s, that was a decade where the majority didn’t have the vote. They didn’t have dignity. The laws were atrocious, but at least they could complain. They could protest. We could organize, and we created the germ, the vision of the new South Africa. The volunteering chief for the Defiance Campaign was a certain Nelson Mandela. He was the first one to go to jail.

00:18:35 ALICE WINKLER: And things were about to get much worse.

00:18:38 ALBIE SACHS: It was dreadful — 1960, the year of the massacre at Sharpeville — 69 people shot dead, mostly in their backs; the ANC, African National Congress, banned completely; the leaders banned; the newspapers banned; the Pan Africanist Congress banned. The Communist Party had been banned for ten years already. Everything driven underground in a possible state of emergency — and then things became much, much grimmer.

00:19:06 An attempt was made in 1961 by Nelson Mandela to call for a national convention to negotiate a new constitution for South Africa. He came from the underground to do it. It was just ignored completely. The government, to show its force, paraded with armored cars and airplanes, like to say, "We are not going to change white supremacy forever in South Africa." The ANC then decided, "We’ve said nonviolence, nonviolence, nonviolence forever. Where has it gotten us?"

00:19:38 "Things are worse now than they were even 40 years ago." And the first bombs went off.

00:19:44 ALICE WINKLER: In other words, the African National Congress, the ANC, took up arms, and the government cracked down even harder, instituting the Sabotage Act and the 90-Day Law, which allowed detention without trial. Albie Sachs, meanwhile, had begun working as an attorney, mostly defending black clients charged under racist statutes, some of them facing a death sentence.

00:20:08 ALBIE SACHS: You could be plucked out of your home, your work — walking in the streets, in my case, going into my office — at the whim of a senior police officer. No charge, locked up in solitary confinement, no knowledge of why you’ve been locked up at all, no contact with lawyers, no contact with families — just you, yourself, alone in a little concrete cube.

00:20:36 I saw my clients being picked up, one by one, one after the other, and had the most terrible experience of somebody who came to my office, and she said, "My name is Beauty Solwandle. I’m married to Looksmart Solwandle." And I’m getting all tense because I know she’s going to ask me that he’s been detained under the 90-Day Law, and there’s nothing I can do.

00:21:09 The law gave us no scope. There was no habeas corpus, there was no remedy, and I’m trying to say — and she’s telling me her story slowly: "And he was in this police cell, and he was taken to Pretoria.” And I went to say, "Mrs. Solwandle, there’s nothing — " and she said, "And I got the news yesterday that he was found hanged in his cell." He was the first political detainee — sadly, the first of many, many in South Africa — to be killed under torture. And I said, "Well, at least we must try and get a post-mortem, an investigation."

00:21:48 And we got lawyers to do that, and something came out, and the magistrate just accepted everything from the police. All the bruising on his body, he found excuses for that. And we didn’t get very far, but not long afterward, I, myself, was in a cell on my own. I remember walking around in this little concrete space.

00:22:15 The door slammed — the echo that’s slamming in my ear — and so this is what it’s like, this moment you’re dreaming of. You’re in the freedom struggle, and you’re going to be locked up, and will you be brave, and what will it be like? And I’m walking around, and I’m singing, and I’m whistling, and I’m trying to keep up my courage. There’s a mat on the floor. There was a little toilet in there with a wire thing that you can pull.

00:22:40 And five minutes, ten minutes — I don’t have a watch — twenty minutes. The time goes so slowly. It’s just you, your toes, the wall, your toes, the wall, looking at what to do, no one to speak to, nothing to do, nothing to occupy yourself. It was far worse than I’d ever imagined, far, far, far worse. I thought you just had to be brave. You bared your chest. Let the enemy come. Let them do their damnedest. And in a way, you’re fighting your own loneliness, your own eagerness to have someone to talk to.

00:23:18 And one day passes, and another day, and another day, and another day, and you never know when it’s going to end. You get your food. I’d be allowed out into a little yard for exercise. I would run round and round, favoring my right leg, and then round and round the other way, favoring my left leg. And I would sing, and I would whistle, and I tried to keep up my courage.

00:23:42 And one day, I hear whistling. I can’t believe it because it’s not just the general noise. Prison is noisy — people screaming, screaming, shouting, doors being slammed, everybody shouting. And I hear whistling, and I whistle back. And then I hear the whistling coming, and I tried out the ANC freedom songs, and there was no response, and I’m wondering, "Who is it? Somebody else in solitary confinement?"

00:24:14 And we made a connection. And it was the “Going Home” theme from the Dvořák New World Symphony... and I hear from far away in the prison...

00:24:50 I don’t even know who it is. I don’t even know who it is, and this was a wonderful form of contact. And then I would do exercises as part of my regime, and I’m in the middle of trying to do a hundred press-ups, and I hear the whistling, and I say, "No, I’m only up to 75. Please wait, wait, wait. Can’t you wait?" And then we had to kind of establish a time during the day when we would be ready for the whistling. And I never found out who it was.

00:25:18 ALICE WINKLER: Never found out while he was in prison, but years later, he wrote about his whistling savior in his memoir, The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs. The whistler recognized herself and got in touch. It turned out to be a woman named Dorothy Adams. They were both living in exile in England by then, and eventually, she would become Sachs’s assistant when he began work on a new constitution for South Africa. That was years later, but back when they met, they talked about how they’d seen one other in prison and noticed that each other looked really brave.

00:25:58 In 2009, when Albie Sachs sat for this interview, he reflected on the range of emotions he felt as a prisoner, in and out of solitary confinement.

00:26:09 ALBIE SACHS: I was very worried about myself. I thought, "I don’t hate them. If I’m a serious freedom fighter, I should hate them." But I just saw Flicky, a guy doing his job as he saw it. "Advocate Sachs" — he called me “advocate,” like “attorney” — "do you mind if I tell you a joke?” I was dying to have someone speak to me. "No, no. No, no, go ahead."

00:26:38 "There was this child who swallowed a little coin, and his mother said, 'We must take him to the doctor.' And his father said, 'No, no, no. We must take him to the lawyer. He’ll get the money out of him much quicker.' Do you mind if I tell you that joke?" And you know, it was such a weird situation, that he’s still respecting me as a policeman.

00:27:03 He’s respecting me because I’m a lawyer and treating me as a human being. He wasn’t from the security police, and I couldn’t imagine killing him or hating him. I could imagine living in a country with someone like him, who is kind of all right, you know, on a one-to-one basis. Maybe with the black prisoners, he was much harsher, but I didn’t feel that. He didn’t have that edge.

00:27:26 At times it was quite painful that your whiteness, whether you liked it or not, followed you all the way through. Even when I was blown up afterward, my white body counted for more than the bodies of black people who were blown up, who were tortured far more severely than I was tortured. The world, the press, the media, controlled by people, white themselves, seeing the world through white eyes — not even maliciously, just automatically — that’s their standpoint, their point of reference.

00:28:01 And so my amputation, my body, counted for something, and then I had to think, "Well, what do I do about it?" And I said, "Well, it gives me access. It gives me a chance to speak. At least I can be like an ambassador for all the others whose voices aren’t heard." I might say, I discovered years later, after democracy was beginning to come to South Africa, and I was interviewed by Anthony Lewis, a columnist for the New York Times, about my attitude to the white guards and others, and I explained that I felt I ought to be more angry than I was.

00:28:40 "There’s something wrong with me." He said, "You know, I’ve just spoken to Nelson Mandela. He said the same thing. And I’ve spoken to Walter Sisulu, who said the same thing, and Ahmed Kathrada, who said the same thing." And I realized I belonged to a culture, a generation based on the values of the Freedom Charter. We were fighting against a system, a system of injustice. We weren’t fighting against a race. We were fighting for a better country, a better society.

00:29:06 That system which had not only oppressed and imprisoned black people in terms of their hopes and their possibilities, but imprisoned whites in fear and narrowness and inwardness and arrogance and greed — that’s what liberation meant; that’s what emancipation means.

00:29:24 INTERVIEWER: What reasons do you think you survived your detainment?

00:29:29 ALBIE SACHS: I barely survived the 90-day detention. After 90 days — it was the 90-Day Law. You could be locked up for 90 days, and somebody comes to the little cell that I was in and gives me back my tie and my shoelaces and my watch. I had been without a watch for 90 days. I used to hear the clock — City Hall clock — chiming, and that would give me the hours, and to this day, when I hear that City Hall clock chiming, I get an uneasy feeling.

00:30:01 And on Sundays, I would hear the bells, the carillon playing, and I can’t get pure pleasure from that. I get a little bit cold. I feel a sense of shock. This beautiful thing of bells playing on a Sunday, joyous bells, and I'll start shivering. And now I get my watch back, and I go down the stairs, and the station commander meets me. I go to his office, and he says some nice things to me.

00:30:35 And a phone call from my mother, and he said, "Yes. No, he’s all right. He’s fine. He’s being released." I’m very suspicious, and I say goodbye, and I walk out of his office, and I’m walking to the street, and a policeman comes in and says, "I’m placing you under arrest." So they released me for two minutes, and then I’m in for another 90 days. That’s how you play with the law.

00:31:01 I take off my tie. My shoelaces go. My watch goes. I’m back in the same cell, and I started having some out-of-body experiences then — very strange. I’m lying on my little cot, and I would feel Albie is lifting out, looking down on me. And I’m not a person given to a spiritual view of the world in that sense.

00:31:29 I’m a great believer in the human personality and spirituality in that sense, but not an out-of-body experience, but I had them. They were quite, quite strong. But I carry on and suddenly, one day, they come and say, "You’re being released." Now, it wasn’t after the second 90 days. It was after another 78 days, so now I’m a little more hopeful.

00:31:57 I get my tie back. I get my watch back. I go downstairs. I look around. There’s no policeman to arrest me again. And I put on my running shoes. I’m in the center of Cape Town. I’ve grown a big mustache. It was the only thing I could do where I felt I had some self-determination. And I ran all the way through Cape Town and through an area called Green Point and down to the coast, further than I’d ever run in my life, dreaming — I'd always dreamed of, “If I'm released, if I get through this, I’m going to go to the sea.”

00:32:37 And I’m looking a bit crazed. I was a bit crazed. Down the steps, and I just flung myself into the sea. It was absolutely triumphant on the outside. Inside, there was something crushed, something deeply unnerved by these weeks and weeks and months of just being on my own. And I would try to keep myself going by inventing games, and I would sing songs — quite an interesting collection of the hit tunes of October 1963 — and my favorite was “Always.”

00:33:25 "I’ll be living here, always. Year after year, always. In this little cell, that I know so well, I’ll be living swell, always, always." And I would sort of waltz around singing to myself and be amused with the fact that this Irving Berlin song, picked up by Noel Coward, who wrote comedies of upper-middle-class manners, was keeping alive the spirit of this freedom fighter in Cape Town.

00:33:57 "I’ll be staying in, always. Keeping up my chin, always. Not for but an hour, not for but a week, not for 90 days, but always." I would try to remember the states in the United States of America. I had two arms then, so I could count on ten fingers, and I won't mention the names of the states that I didn't remember, when finally I got out and I looked at a map. So it had to be activities like — I had a towel. It was a checked towel, and I would use pieces of orange peel to play checkers, you know, on the towel. But it's boring playing against yourself.

00:34:39 You know, your left hand knows what your right hand is planning. I would watch ants. There was a caterpillar once. It became very exciting, and suddenly it disappeared. And one day the station commander comes in, and he's waving a piece of paper, and he said, "If they'd listened to me, this would never have happened." I don't know what he's talking about.

00:34:59 And he gives me the paper, and it says, "In the Supreme Court of South Africa, Cape of Good Hope, Provincial Division, in the case of Sachs vs. Russo” — hey, that's me — “it is hereby ordered that" — and I'm reading — "that the applicant be allowed reading matter and writing material."

00:35:21 I couldn’t show my joy. Wow! And until then, I’d been in a rage against the judges, against the legal profession — one of their own is being picked up and put into solitary confinement, without access to lawyers, without a trial, without charge, indefinite detention without trial. How can that happen and they're doing nothing? And I turned on my colleagues — and your emotions get very exaggerated when you're in solitary confinement — and now they were the most marvelous people who had ever been on the whole earth!

00:35:54 Fantastic! The legal system, rule of law, even in these dark circumstances — but that saved me, that certainly I got books.


00:36:07 ALBIE SACHS: And then, what books? What do you choose? They wouldn't let me have my friends send in books, in case there was some secret code, so I had to order from the local library. And it amused me no end to think of this young policeman going into the library and asking for Proust's Remembrance of Things Past — and imagining the librarian — and I particularly enjoyed Don Quixote, especially the second volumes, where Cervantes himself had been in prison, and he wasn't writing about this crazed person pursuing futile honor.

00:36:45 He was writing about this brave idealist who kept being knocked off his horse, and he's down in the dust, and Sancho Panza comes and picks him up, and he gets back onto the horse. And he goes, and he's knocked down again, and he gets up. And of course, I identified totally, totally. And two years later, I was picked up again. By then, half of my clients had been picked up, and things were much rougher now.

00:37:15 ALICE WINKLER: The investigations were more brutal. The security police had begun using sleep deprivation and other forms of torture to break people down.

00:37:24 ALBIE SACHS: And the word “terrorism” was used to justify just locking us up — but we were fighting for freedom, for democracy — but the label was used to justify keeping us in indefinite detention without trial. And they went through the afternoon, through the day, into the night, deep into the night. And by early morning, I'm feeling myself getting weaker and weaker and weaker. And they're working in relays. There were about eight of them, and they're taking turns, and they can sleep and come back. And eventually, I feel my resistance going.

00:37:58 And I say, "Albie, you've got to manage your collapse. It's coming. Your clients had sometimes held out for two, three, four, five days, and when they broke, they broke completely." And so now I'm thinking about it, how I can control, and eventually, early in the morning, I just topple off the chair. I'm lying on the ground, and I see all these shoes coming, and I hear the excited voices.

00:38:28 Black shoes, brown shoes, and they're all shuffling around me, and I'm just lying inert. And water comes pouring down on me, and my hair gets matted.

00:38:39 ALICE WINKLER: Water and more water. Albie Sachs is now on the verge of collapse, his eyes closed, and then come the heavy fingers of his interrogator, a famously vicious police lieutenant named Swanepoel, pushing open his eyes again and again. Eventually, Sachs sits up and starts thinking, "Maybe I’ll say something, but what?" He indicates he’s going to talk, finally, and so his interrogator grabs paper and pen.

00:39:13 Sachs starts by describing the nature of his interrogation, explaining that he’s making his statement under duress, and then he mentions only the names of people who are either already dead or out of the country.

00:39:27 ALBIE SACHS: It's stale stuff. I'd been out of the struggle for two years, anyhow, since my previous detention. But I was saying something. I was speaking to them, and our principle was you don't say anything to them. You give your name and address and nothing more. And I felt totally degraded. He said, "We'll be back. We'll be back."

00:39:52 ALICE WINKLER: Lieutenant Swanepoel gets Sachs to sign all the pages of his statement, except for the first one, where he’d made the disclaimer of duress.

00:40:02 ALBIE SACHS: So though I ended up not giving away any information of any value, I still feel something inside me was broken, some strand of dignity and self-possession, and I've never gotten over it, never gotten over it. There are some humiliations and pains you carry with you. You get on with your life, you manage, you do things. But you can't say, “It doesn't matter. It doesn't count.”

00:40:30 It counted. It was worse than being blown up, much worse than being blown up — the attack on my mind, my spirit, by dignity — much worse than the attack on my body, which came many years later.

00:40:42 ALICE WINKLER: A couple of days after his interrogation in prison, Albie Sachs managed to smuggle out a message on a tiny scrap of paper, testifying to what he’d endured. He calls it now the second most important legal document of his career, the first being his contributions to the constitution. Somehow, that miniature plea to the court had its desired effect, and Sachs was spared further police brutality.

00:41:10 When he was released, his friends expected him to run to the sea again, but he was too broken. Back home in Cape Town, he wasn’t under house arrest, but he was barred from entering black areas and schools, and he wasn’t allowed to publish. He still had access to the beautiful beaches and mountain outside of Cape Town, though, so he describes his confinement as paradise.

00:41:34 ALBIE SACHS: And every Sunday, I would climb the mountain, and it was so important for me. I would feel free because if they were following me, I could look down the cliff face and see, so I'd have five hours of freedom that somehow the mountain represented more than just a safe place. It was nature. It was the world. It was being touched with the earth, the sand, the rocks, the plants, and come rain, come shine, you know, every Sunday I would climb.

00:42:03 ALICE WINKLER: He went back to work as an attorney, and he was asked to defend a woman named Stephanie Kemp who’d been charged with sabotage. He felt he was still in too raw a state, though, to represent her, so he asked that another attorney take the lead. But when he met her, he says, they fell in love across the table, without saying a word about it. When her trial was over, she was sentenced to several years in prison.

00:42:30 ALBIE SACHS: And when I said goodbye to her, and the first time I shook her hand when she went off to prison, I just knew destiny had brought us together. She came out. We met. We carried on, developed our relationship a little bit, her being followed by the police all the time. We went down to the beach one day, and it gave me some pleasure to know that the big, heavy security officer, in his suit, was sitting out in the boiling sun while we were eating ice creams down on the beach. But we couldn’t even be together, and the choice was going full-time underground.

00:43:05 ALICE WINKLER: They decided, instead, they would each go into exile and meet in London, where they would get married.

00:43:11 ALBIE SACHS: I think back, being on the boat — in those days, you traveled by boat. You didn't — this is 1966. You didn't travel by plane unless you were super rich or a prime minister or something. And people were throwing streamers, and everybody was happy, and lots of South Africans longed to go to Europe. And the boat would go... and my heart was going... and I'm laughing and appearing very jolly and happy.

00:43:43 At least I'm going to be free of the arrest without trial, the sleep deprivation, living in a country that's so racist and ugly and where it's hard even to fight back. But inside me, there was a terrible, terrible heaviness. And we got to London, and all I wanted to do was lie on Hampstead Heath and watch the kites flying. It's soft grass and kites flying, soft grass, kites flying, and you're not going to be arrested. Part of it was quite marvelous, but part of it was also very humbling and very, very sad. And it took me years and years and years to recover my courage.

00:44:30 ALICE WINKLER: To get out of South Africa, Albie Sachs had asked for a permit, which meant he’d agreed he would never come back, and if he did, he'd be arrested. So he was stateless. He spent lots of time reading, books he’d always wanted to read, and he loved London, but justice was nagging at him. And he started to have a little optimism about the possibility of one day returning home to a free South Africa.

00:44:58 Then neighboring Mozambique won its independence. This was in 1975, and the next year, Albie Sachs went to see it.

00:45:07 ALBIE SACHS: The minute my foot touched the tarmac of the airport, I knew, “This is where I'm going to be happy.” I was back again. I was back in Africa. I was close to my country. The energy, the problems were my problems. And I felt, at times, lonely and marginalized, which I have done many times in my life, but I'd sort of hung in there. But even when I was unhappy, I was happy in Mozambique.

00:45:34 I loved its beautiful trees with purple jacarandas, and the flamboyant with the red, and the petals would just fall down onto the ground. And Mozambique did something very special for me. Mozambique gave me back my courage, the spirit, the feeling of this great endeavor to transform, and then people would emancipate themselves. I got it there.

00:46:04 I went up with what we called the Mozambican Revolution. I came down with it because it couldn’t be sustained. You couldn’t do it just on endeavor, just on slogans, just on good ideals. You needed systems in place. You needed to develop your economy. Your economy couldn’t be separated from the world economy. It left something out, space for opposition, and many people ask, “Why is it that the ANC became, effectively, the key instrument in promoting possibly the most advanced progressive constitution for an open and democratic society in the world?”

00:46:42 The theme of pluralism runs all the way through the constitutional order. Pluralism based on total respect for human dignity and a basic equality for everybody — but why the importance of freedom of expression, of having opposition parties? And many people ascribe that to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the communist states and so on. Those things were important in terms of the historical setting in which South Africa achieved its democracy.

00:47:12 But the most important thing was I experienced living in neighboring African countries, seeing it firsthand, the advantages and disadvantages of different political systems.

00:47:22 ALICE WINKLER: One day, while he was still living in Mozambique, Sachs got a call from Oliver Tambo, who was head of the ANC, which was, at that point, operating in exile.

00:47:32 ALBIE SACHS: And he said, "We’ve captured a number of people who were sent from Pretoria to destroy the organization, and we don't have any regulations about how they should be treated. The ANC's a political organization. It has an annual general meeting in terms of its statutes. It elects its leadership. You pay your subscription. You agree to the aims and objects. Political parties don't have provisions for locking people up and putting them on trial and deciding what to do with them. Can you help us?"

00:48:06 And possibly the most important project — legal project — of my life emerged from that. He said, "It's very difficult, isn't it, to know what the standards are for treatment of captives?" And in a rather cocky way, I said, "Well, it's not so difficult. We have international instruments that say no torture, inhumane or degrading punishment or treatment."

00:48:30 He said, "We use torture." I couldn’t believe it — ANC, fighting for freedom — we use torture? He said it with a bleak face, and that was why he wanted me in there — because what to do about it? The security people had captured these rascals who were trying to blow up the leadership and introduce poison and do all sorts of terrible things. They were beating them up. I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t know the details. It emerged later, but he knew the details.

00:49:00 And so we had to establish a code of legality and a concept of fundamental human rights — fundamental human rights — no torture. No abuse. No ill treatment, whoever they are, whatever they're trying to do. And the ANC, as an organization, took a very, very firm position that: “We put people on trial. We don't have indefinite detention without trial, whatever the suspicions might be. And we don't use torture, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, suffocating people, physical abuse. We just don't use that because that's not the kind of people we are.”

00:49:41 And I mention this with some emphasis because it meant, when eventually it came to writing the South African constitution, we didn't need any persuading about the importance of fundamental rights. We had applied the theme of fundamental rights to our enemies.

00:49:57 ALICE WINKLER: Their very formidable enemies. Albie Sachs had never wielded a weapon more dangerous than his law degree and his principles, but apartheid was in the death throes, so eventually, his enemies caught up with him.

00:50:12 ALBIE SACHS: So I wasn’t personally involved in the armed struggle, but the armed struggle came to me in the form of state terrorism. My friend Ruth First had been killed by a letter bomb. In 1982, she was teaching at the Eduardo Mondlane University — a wonderful, marvelous intellectual — a seminar sponsored by the United Nations. And boom! She was blown up, and we cried so much, and we sang. We threw flowers into the grave.

00:50:39 We carried her to the grave, and there was a portion of the cemetery in Maputo where many South Africans were buried, over 20 who’d been killed. And each time we went there, we wondered, “That little space over there, is that for me?” And of course, it was nearly for me.

00:51:00 MUSIC: DREAMZ

00:51:06 ALBIE SACHS: I felt that they wouldn’t go for me, that I was clearly a law professor, that I wasn't working in the underground resistance. I was very friendly with many diplomats, including from the United States. I would take visitors around, and I felt they wouldn’t go for me. I was so obviously a soft target, and there would be a reaction against it. And I was wrong.

00:51:30 ALICE WINKLER: April 7, 1988. That was the day that darkness fell on Albie Sachs, and he awoke to discover he was missing an arm and was blind in one eye.

00:51:43 ALBIE SACHS: For I don’t know how many decades, every single day in the freedom struggle, wondering, “If they come for me today, if they come for me tonight, if they come for me tomorrow morning, will I be brave? Will I survive?” And they'd come for me, and I'd gotten through, and I had a total, absolute conviction that as I got better, my country would get better. It had nothing to do with rationality or evidence.

00:52:06 It was just that powerful emotion that I'd gotten through the worst, and South Africa would get through the worst, and we were now on the way to constitutional democracy.

00:52:18 ALICE WINKLER: Albie Sachs says his recovery was like a rebirth. He had to learn to function as if for the first time — how to tie his shoes, how to write, how to read, how to walk, how to run. In the end, he found he had even more strength and resolve to approach the task at hand in South Africa. Over the next two years, Nelson Mandela would be freed from his long imprisonment on Robben Island, and the despicable apartheid era would find its rightful place on the ash-heap of history.

00:52:53 One immediate consequence for Albie Sachs was that he could now return home. It had been twenty-four years and two months since he’d set foot in South Africa. The sensation was strange. He missed the exhilaration of the struggle. He and his fellow freedom fighters had to detox, he says, to accept the normal, sort of boring society they’d fought for.

00:53:20 ALBIE SACHS: And then another emotion started surging. It's wonderful to be able to heal, to construct, to build, to enable things to grow. We'd spent all our lives dedicated to pulling something down, something evil and wicked, and I personally found that terrific. For me, personally, as an individual, it was part of my physical recuperation to see the country now beginning to grow, and the constitution was the bedrock of everything.

00:53:51 It didn’t build houses. It didn’t give people access to schools. It didn’t solve the problems of the country, but it gave a mechanism, a metrics, a way in which people could solve the problems without being at each other's throats. So it was the foundation of everything.

00:54:11 ALICE WINKLER: There was another agent of healing that took hold at the same time as the constitution was coming into being, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the chair.

00:54:25 ALBIE SACHS: I was a strong supporter of the Truth Commission. Partly, we had to deal with crimes committed by ourselves against people whom we'd beaten up and tortured before we introduced the code of conduct into the ANC. And we had to come back to South Africa with clean hands. No secrets. We had to acknowledge this — explain why and what we did about it — but it was more important to deal with all the assassinations, the tortures inside South Africa, the violations.

00:54:57 So I argued for a truth commission even before we got our new constitution. And it had a very special meaning for me because one day I got a phone call, and the receptionist says, "There's a man called Henry. He says he has an appointment to see you." I said, "Send him through." Henry had phoned me to say that he had organized the placing of the bomb in my car. He was going to the Truth Commission. Would I meet him? And I was curious.

00:55:27 And I was pleased that he had the courage, if you like, to come and see me. And I opened the door, and there's a young person, tall, thin, like myself, and I'm looking at him. “So this was the man who tried to kill me?” And he's looking at me. “So this is the man I tried to kill?” We don't say that, but it's in our eyes, and we walk down, and he's striding like a soldier. And I try to hold him up to walk like a judge, you know, to slow him down.

00:55:58 We get to my office, and we talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, and eventually I stand up, and I say, "Henry, I have to get on with my work now. I can't shake your hand but go to the Truth Commission. Maybe we'll meet one day, and who knows?" And I remember, when we walked back, he was just shuffling like a defeated person. He went out the security door. It was over.

00:56:24 Months passed, and I'm at a party at the end of the year, and the band is playing. I'm very tired. We worked very hard as judges, and I hear a voice that says, "Albie!" I look around. "Albie!" My God, it's Henry! And we get him to a corner, and I say, "What happened? What happened?" And he said, "I went to the Truth Commission, and I spoke to Bobby and Sue and Farouk." He's calling me “Albie.” He's using their first-name terms, people who were in exile with me, who also could have been victims of the bomb. "I told them everything, and you said that one day — "

00:57:01 And I said, "Henry, only your face tells me that what you're saying is the truth," and I put out my hand, and I shook his hand. He went away absolutely beaming, and I almost fainted. I heard afterward that he suddenly broke away from that party. He went home, and he cried for two weeks. To me, that was more important than sending him to jail. I wrote a book called The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, saying that if we got democracy in South Africa, roses and lilies would grow out of my arm.

00:57:37 Sending people to jail wouldn't help me at all, but to get the country we'd been fighting for, that would be quite wonderful. That would be my soft vengeance.

00:57:46 MUSIC: LARGO

00:57:55 ALICE WINKLER: Albie Sachs was one of the first justices Nelson Mandela chose to appoint to the new Constitutional Court of South Africa in 1994. During his tenure, which lasted the next 15 years, Justice Sachs was involved in some landmark decisions, one legalizing same-sex marriage, another outlawing the death penalty.

00:58:19 On a final note, there’s one much less famous decision Sachs was eager to talk about when he addressed the Academy of Achievement Summit in 2009. And I want to end on it because it speaks to who this man is you’ve been listening to — a man who helped transform a nation, paid a huge price, but never lost his spirit, his love of art and music and the mountains or his sense of humor. The case involved a student who was selling T-shirts that spoofed South Africa’s sordid past.

00:58:54 His parody involved a well-known beer logo, and the beer company was not amused. Justice Sachs thought it was time to address an important question.

00:59:06 ALBIE SACHS: What is the role of laughter in our new democracy? And I wrote a separate judgment agreeing with the judgment, and I'd just like to read a little bit from that: “The constitution cannot oblige the dour to laugh. It can, however, prevent the cheerless from snuffing out the laughter of the blithe spirits amongst us. Indeed, if our society became completely solemn because of the exercise of state power at the behest of the worthy, not only would all irreverent laughter be suppressed but temperance considerations could end up placing beer drinking itself in jeopardy.”

00:59:48 “And I can see no reasoning principle why a joke against the government can be tolerated, but one at the expense of what used to be called ‘big business’ cannot. A society that takes itself too seriously risks bottling up its tensions and treating every example of irreverence as a threat to its existence. Humor is one of the great solvents of democracy. It permits the ambiguities and contradictions of public life to be articulated in nonviolent forms.”

01:00:20 “It promotes diversity. It enables a multitude of discontents to be expressed in a myriad of spontaneous ways. It is an elixir of constitutional health.” Thank you.

01:00:38 ALICE WINKLER: Retired Justice Albie Sachs at the Academy of Achievement Summit in Cape Town. He retired from the court in 2009 but still writes and teaches and speaks publicly. He is married now to his second wife, a late-in-life love, as he calls her. If you were moved by Albie Sachs’s story, please tell your friends to listen. Our Twitter handle is @WhatItTakesNow. There’s more on Albie Sachs at

01:01:08 And one more thing: you should check out our episode on Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which we posted last year. This is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler. Thank you so much for listening, and thanks to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for funding What It Takes.

01:01:29 MUSIC: LARGO


What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.