Guarded optimism of the Jewish judges who helped to build a new South Africa

Albie Sachs was one of several Jewish lawyers who have made their mark in the battle against apartheid


When Albie Sachs was asked if he would ever wish to challenge himself by climbing the sheer rock-face of Table Mountain, he told a meeting in Cape Town: “I would give my right arm to do that!” I heard a sudden intake of breath from the audience, then a gale of laughter.

Everyone in the audience knew that the South African apartheid regime’s notorious Bureau for State Security had, in real life, destroyed Sachs’s right arm via a bomb explosion in 1988.

The revolutionary who went on to become a judge in South Africa’s top court was displaying a uniquely defiant, self-deprecating wit that stems, he says, from his upbringing as the son of poor Lithuanian Jewish immigrants.   

Sachs is one of several top South African Jewish lawyers who have made their mark in the battle against apartheid and subsequently in the country’s post-apartheid legal system.  

In our interview at his elegant home above the glorious Clifton Beach on the Cape Peninsula’s Atlantic Ocean coast, Judge Sachs, now 88, recalled the bomb blast in Maputo with chilling clarity. 

”During my enforced exile in Mozambique, I was off to the beach on a public holiday. As I was pulling the car door open, everything went into total darkness.  Days later I opened one of my eyes and saw a blur.  A nurse said: ‘You’re in hospital.  It was a car bomb.’  

“I fainted back into the darkness with a feeling of massive joy.  I was alive. And I knew I had escaped a fate we exiles feared more than death: being kidnapped by the South African security police.

“I moved my left arm to feel my right arm, but it wasn’t there any more.”

His eyesight has never fully returned, and, though he received further treatment in Britain, Sachs refused to get a prosthetic for his right arm, which is now just a stump.

His brush with death did not stop him from playing a unique role when he returned from Britain to South Africa soon after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.  In 1994 he declined the role of the newly democratised county’s first Minister of Justice. Instead, he became a judge in the 11-person Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial body.

In his judgments and public speeches Sachs continued to display his lifelong positivity. Even today, amid South Africa’s burgeoning problems, and now retired, he remains, he says, an unrepentant optimist — somewhat in contrast with another retired Jewish judge I interviewed, Dennis Davis.

At the University of Cape Town, Davis had been active in the Students Jewish Association, and, like the majority of Jewish students at that time (of whom I was one), was staunchly anti-apartheid. Davis went on to be a law professor there after his Cambridge doctorate, and from 2000 to 2020 was president of the country’s Competition Appeal Court and the Tax Appeal Court.

Decades before us, Sachs had also been a law student at the university. By the time Davis and I were completing our degrees, Albie Sachs had written Jail Diary, his gripping (and banned) account of his 90 days as a young lawyer held in solitary confinement for his anti-apartheid activities, making him a hero-figure among us students.    

Sachs recalled he had been brought up in a strictly secular environment by two communist-supporting trade unionist parents, though as their native language had been Yiddish he acquired some words and phrases  (“mainly negative ones”, he chuckled).  

“My Jewish heroes were and are Marx, Freud and Einstein, all very secular Jews,” he said.

Only since the end of apartheid has Sachs re-engaged with Jewish organisations, who invite him to lecture. He also helped put together a book, later converted into an exhibition in the Jewish Museum in Cape Town. It told what had until then been the largely ignored stories of a number of radical Jews who contributed to the anti-apartheid movement. 

One unsung hero in “the struggle” was, says Sachs, his own firebrand father Solly, who is buried in Golders Green cemetery. “He was an atheist, but if God does exist, I’m sure my father will be arguing with him right now.”

He is an admirer, of course, of Nelson Mandela, but he stresses that even this great man was just part of “the struggle”, which Sachs believes would have succeeded even without the icon.  

He also feels that, after Mandela’s release from 27 years in prison and his years as president, he may have been perceived as something of a “sell-out” to white interests.  

Dennis Davis would in his youth deliver superb sermons at the university students’ shul on the High Holy Days. Although he now attends egalitarian services, he loves tradition. “On my way to our interview I was listening to chazanut music on my car CD.  I still give sermons on High Holy Days, something I’ve been doing since the age of 17.”

I reminded him I had chaired a university debate in 1974 in which he supported the Zionist cause. He says he still sees Israel as central to Jewish existence, but is troubled by some aspects of Israeli conduct. 

Davis’s moderate views on Israel put him at odds with many in South Africa’s staunchly Zionist Jewish community. But what made him start becoming, as he puts it, “partly ostracised” by the Jewish establishment in the 1980s was his active involvement in organisations affiliated with the then-banned African National Congress. Previously, he had been seen as “acceptable” in campaigning for the liberal mainly-white-run anti-apartheid Progressive or Federal Parties, which had worked less confrontationally within the whites-only parliamentary system.

Becoming judge-president of the supreme courts for commercial and taxation matters would normally have brought him prestige and importance in the Jewish community. Yet he found invitations to talk to Jewish groups became scarcer, even though by then he had become a national figure and had uniquely been permitted to present a successful weekly television programme about legal affairs.

His analysis of South African Jewry’s dilemma now is nuanced: “You’ve got a highly educated and outwardly successful population, including so many of the highly educated doctors, lawyers, accountants. Their skills are transportable so they can go somewhere else. We had 120,000 Jews when you and I were students.  Now it’s less than half that.  

“Many who remain feel that their children are not going to have a future here. Will there be a Jewish community here in 20 or 30 years’ time? I do not know the answer.”

 Davis pointed out that the South African Jewish dilemma needs also to be seen in the wider context. “The Jewish future is tied up with the future of the whole country.” 

He does not foresee increasing antisemitism, nor does he think the prevailing anti-Zionist rhetoric of many government ministers and trade unionists will result in a mass exodus of the remaining Jews.  

He feels these expressions are based on words not deeds and that anti-Zionism is partly a product of past liaisons with supposed fellow-liberation movements, like the PLO, and now of the false comparison of Israel with apartheid South Africa. 

What he does see as a serious threat to South African Jews is the country’s endemic corruption. Unwise quotas, for example in forcing white maths and science teachers out of predominantly black state schools have simply increased the already disastrous employment prospects of young black people, which in turn impoverishes the economy and stokes social unrest.

Albie Sachs, on the other hand, is confident of South Africa’s future.  “Yes, we have corruption.  But we have a thriving democracy too. What other country forces its ruling president to give two days of evidence to a commission about state corruption?”

He feels a sense of satisfaction  — though that, he says, borders on smugness — in that what people told him was impossible -— a largely peaceful transition to a one-person-one-vote democracy — turned out to be achievable.

“It’s thrilling in a personal sense but it gives one courage about the world, that it is possible to have simple, naïve beliefs in human goodness and the capacity of people to change and to transform their lives.

“It wasn’t as easy as we had thought.  There were betrayals along the way. Everything is precarious, and we don’t quite know how it’s all going to work out. Insecurities continue. That’s also something that’s very valuable along the way. But basically I feel an intense optimism that results from all this.”

Partially disillusioned though he admits he now is with some of the frailties and failures of anti-apartheid South Africa, what helps keep Sachs going in times of trouble and of daily power cuts is, he says, his inherited Jewish sense of humour.

“I feel Jewish wit comes from a sense of fighting back sometimes when you know you’re not going to win — unless you absorb the harshness and turn it around in a certain way.”

He has two life-like female dolls, gifts from friends, facing him in his living-room. “I look at these women and -- just like my wife -- they inspire me to see that supposedly ordinary South Africans are just wonderful people.  I also want to be remembered as simply this: a nice guy.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive