Interview: Albie Sachs

He's the lawyer who survived a bomb attack to help bring justice to the new South Africa


Albie Sachs says he has got used to having "one long arm, and one short arm"

Albie Sachs says he has got used to having "one long arm, and one short arm"

Albie Sachs has no recollection of April 7 1988 beyond the fact that he was intending to go for a run on the beach near his home in Maputo, Mozambique. He remembers leaving his apartment with some cold beers which he planned to drink as an after-run treat. He subsequently found out that as he unlocked the driver's door of his Honda there was a huge explosion. Sachs lost his right arm and the sight of one eye as a result of the bomb, planted by agents of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Doctors in the Mozambiquan capital managed to save his life and before long he was dispatched to London for a long and painful rehabilitation.

Sachs, who later helped to write the South Africa's constitution and was appointed by Nelson Mandela as a judge in the Constitutional Court, recorded his trauma and steps towards recovery in a book, The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, which describes not only his physical recovery but, as the title suggests, his response to the assassination attempt. Now 76, Sachs is in London for the launch of a revised and updated edition. With his "short arm" (he dislikes the word stump) resting on the table, he explains how he made sense of his near death experience - which in turn gave him the idea for the soft vengeance of the book's title.

"Soft vengeance means you don't do to them what they do to you. You help move the country on and you achieve the things you were fighting for - that's more powerful than hard vengeance which is simply doing the same awful things but changing the roles. This wasn't just some senseless act, it was part and parcel of the whole project. That validates your life and that is the reason I lost an arm."

That Sachs retained his humanity and his overwhelming desire to give his compatriots human rights is remarkable - all the more so when you consider that his efforts ensured that those who intended to murder him would benefit from a system of justice which they had denied him.

He is also remarkably sanguine about his injuries.

"If my arm was offered back to me now I probably wouldn't take it. I have got so used to being in the world with one long arm and one short arm that it's now my very being. My overall sense is that my life picked up remarkably well from that moment on. My survival gave me a sense almost of immunity. Before the attack I always had a fear - will they come for me and if they do, will I be brave? Well, they did come for me and I got through."

My path crossed with Mandela's and we worked together

Albie Sachs

Sachs was practically born into the struggle against apartheid. His father, Solly, was a trade union activist, and his mother, Rae, worked for a man the young Albie knew as a Uncle Moses. "But this wasn't Moses Cohen or Moses Levine, this was Moses Kotane, the general secretary of the Communist Party and a prominent member of the ANC. Our contact with black people was on the basis of comradeship and shared values."

Despite the rabid racism of South Africa's ruling National Party and the fact that it found common cause with the Nazis in Germany, Sachs does not remember growing up in an antisemitic society. "I suppose it was understood that there were sectors of society to which Jews were not expected to aspire - from clubs to senior government appointments."

He adds: "The police thought any white who opposed apartheid had to be a Jew and I'm sure they saw something quite sinister, something threatening and Machiavellian in the Jews. Actually, some Jews bent over backwards to prove that they could be as good racists as anyone else."

Sachs has pondered why the Jewish community as a whole did so little to oppose apartheid. But he feels that Jews should not beat themselves up too much about it. Individually, Jews, like Sachs himself and other freedom fighters including Joe Slovo, did plenty. "Not many whites went into the underground but of those who did, a great number were Jews. A much bigger number helped the struggle against apartheid, sometimes in Parliament, such as Helen Suzman, and others in the professions."

Sachs himself initially chose the law as a way of fighting the system from within - specifically by defending those who fell foul of apartheid legislation. But he was conflicted about his career. He felt happy that he was able to help people fight against unjust laws and he enjoyed the status which came with being a lawyer. But he hated the fact that he had to work within an unjust system, and its corrosive effects gnawed away at him.

Ultimately the government took things out of his control. They issued banning orders against him, arrested him and subjected him to lengthy periods of solitary confinement - the process which led him to write his first book, The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, which was dramatised by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Sachs recalls: "The solitary confinement and the sleep deprivation affected me far more deeply than the bomb. And in a curious way, the bomb blew away the misery and sadness associated with prolonged solitary confinement. It was as though a joy had come back into my life."

At the end of the book, several months after the bomb, Sachs achieves his ambition to return to Maputo for that long-delayed run along the beach. He also expresses a fervent desire to repeat the run on a South African beach one day with his comrade Nelson Mandela (the book was written in 1989, the year before Mandela's release). Sachs laughs: "I never got to run with Mandela. I walked with him and I talked with him. The idea of running on the beach with him was a metaphor. Our paths came together and we worked together on the new constitution. He was the one who appointed me to the Constitutional Court."

By the time of Mandela's release, Sachs had recovered from his injuries and was living a normal life again, having recuperated at the London Hospital. "I found the doctors terrific, although if there were more than one of them they would speak about me rather than to me which I found upsetting. But the people I loved the most were the physiotherapists. They reached into me, they found my courage and they encouraged me to be courageous.

"Of course there were frustrations. When I came out of hospital people would sometimes cut my food for me, which was making me into an invalid. It took me about a year to be able to say: 'Thanks for offering to help, but it's OK'."

So is there anything he cannot do with only one hand? "Somebody asked me that same question years ago and immediately I knew the answer. I can't hang my trousers on a hanger to get the crease just right. It drives me crazy."

Other than that, he is happy with his lot in life. "I survived the bomb, I went back to South Africa after 24 years in exile, I helped to write the new constitution, I voted for the first time as a free person, I was appointed to the highest court in the land, I defended the constitution and helped to build our new court - a beautiful building like a palace on the hill. I also met my wife Vanessa and we had a son, Oliver. I don't know what else is waiting for me but my cup is already running over."

'The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter' is published by Souvenir Press at £15

    Last updated: 11:58am, November 3 2011