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Sachs appeal: Heroism, humility and humour

Pillar of justice, ubermensch and pal of George Clooney's ... Albie Sachs shares some life highlights with Jonathan Ancer

24 July 2022 - 00:00 By Jonathan Ancer
Vanessa September and Albie Sachs with Amal and George Clooney. The Clooneys are making a film about Sachs's life.
Vanessa September and Albie Sachs with Amal and George Clooney. The Clooneys are making a film about Sachs's life.

Albie Sachs is hoarse ... and it’s George Clooney’s fault. Our interview is at the Oasis Retirement Resort in Cape Town where the 87-year-old warrior for justice and former judge of the Constitutional Court is explaining why he’s a little hoarse. 

A week earlier he was at the Old Fort Prison in Johannesburg, now home to the Constitutional Court, where he was being filmed for a Clooney production. 

Sachs was sitting in the freezing cold on the ramparts and was being filmed with instructions from the director in Los Angeles.

“We were waiting for a moment known as the cinematographer's delight, when just after the sun sets the twilight from the remnants of the sun is equal in illumination to the light of the city, and you get a strange illumination that lasts for one minute,” Sachs tells the audience. 

“I spent half an hour in the freezing cold waiting for that one minute and I ended up with a bad cough, but at least I can claim I’m an actor ... like George Clooney.”

Albie Sachs at home in Clifton.
Albie Sachs at home in Clifton.
Image: Ruvan Boshoff

So, what’s a nice freedom fighter like Albie Sachs doing hobnobbing with Hollywood A-listers? 

It all began when his friend Sonia Sotomayor, the US Supreme Court judge, invited him and his wife Vanessa September for coffee to meet a former law clerk and the clerk’s husband. 

“The clerk arrives and it's Amal Clooney, and her husband is George,” says Sachs. “We hit it off.”

A while later Sachs received an email from the Clooneys to say their foundation wanted to give an annual award to people who fought for justice.

They asked him if he would mind if it was called the Albie Sachs Justice Award. 

“I hesitated for a half of a quarter of a third of a nanosecond. So many people contributed so much to the struggle for justice and to single out one person in a way undermines a little bit of our spirit, which was ‘all for one, one for all’. But that's the world we are living in, so it was half of a quarter of a third of a nanosecond before I said yes.”

Another email arrived from Amal, who said George asked if five annual awards could all be called The Albies. 

“There was a drawing that George himself had made showing a figure with a head, a torso, and with one long arm and one short arm ... He'd drawn it and it was very lovely. I said okay. So now it’s going to be The Albies and guess who the first recipient of The Albies will be?” he asks the Oasis residents. 

“Albie,” they shout out. 

“Yes, Albie,” he says with a huge smile.   

We are at the luxury retirement resort to discuss a book I’d written called Mensches in the Trenches, celebrating the lives of Jewish South Africans who made a mark in the fight against apartheid. The people aren’t the well-known activists like Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Denis Goldberg, Hilda and Rusty Bernstein or even Sachs. 

Rather, the book tells the stories of lesser known Jewish activists who made a contribution out of the public eye. It also profiles a number of activists who were once household names but are now in danger of being forgotten, like Sachs’s father Solly.

Persistent anti-LGBTIQ+ violence belies SA’s commitment to fighting inequality.
Persistent anti-LGBTIQ+ violence belies SA’s commitment to fighting inequality.
Image: Dorothy Kgosi

Solly Sachs is regarded as one of the most remarkable trade unionists of the 20th century. He became secretary of the Garment Workers Union (GWU) in 1928. Under his leadership, the GWU became the most militant and well-organised union of its time. 

The union first included a number of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe — one of them was my grandfather, a tailor, who idolised Solly — and later many black women, like Lilian Ngoyi, and coloured women, like Rosie Jardine, who worked in clothing factories. 

Solly also organised poverty-stricken young Afrikaans women who fled the rural areas during the Great Depression to work in factories. They were the daughters of the Boers who rebelled against the British — among them Johanna Cornelius — and Solly referred to them as the rebels’ daughters.  

Sachs’s parents separated when he was a toddler and his mother, Ray Ginsburg, took him and his brother Johnny to live in Cape Town, where she worked as typist for “Uncle  Moses” — not Moses Cohen or Moses Kantor, but Moses Kotane, general secretary of the Communist Party. 

In 1941, Sachs received a postcard from his father. 

“Dear Albert,” it read, “congratulations on your sixth birthday. May you grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation.”

And that’s exactly what happened. 

Sachs became a lifelong freedom fighter and lawyer who during the day dedicated himself to defending people charged with breaking apartheid’s racist laws, while at night he worked in the underground resistance. 

His first “client” was his own father — though, according to Sachs, it wasn’t much more than a PR idea of his dad’s.  

The government had banned Solly under the Suppression of Communism Act and forced him to resign as the GWU’s general secretary. 

Solly was outraged. In defiance of the order, he marched with a group of elderly Jewish men and young Afrikaans, coloured and black women to the Johannesburg City Hall. 

My father, who was a teenager, and my grandfather were among the protesters.  

My father remembers “the bespectacled, fiery, red-haired and blue-eyed Solly” standing on the steps. 

“As he started to speak, the doors of the city hall swung open and a troop of policemen with shiny new pickaxe handles came out. There was nowhere to run. The police arrested Solly and then started swinging their pickaxes like batons at the protesters,” my father, who was beaten by the police, told me.  

“The joke,” Sachs says, “is that hundreds of women followed my father as he was being led to the police station, shouting: ‘We want Sachs! We want Sachs!’ which, with their South African accents, sounded a lot like: ‘We want sex! We want sex!’”

Albie Sachs at home in Clifton, Cape Town.
Albie Sachs at home in Clifton, Cape Town.
Image: Ruvan Boshoff

Years later, on August 9 1955, Lillian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph, who had been at the city hall protest, were two of the four leaders of the women’s march in Pretoria. 

Solly was convicted of defying his banning orders and sentenced to six months in prison. He believed he could overturn the banning orders by arguing that they were too vague. He asked 17-year-old Sachs, a second year law student at the University of Cape Town, to be his junior in Bloemfontein where he argued his appeal himself. 

“I had to get a suit,” recalls Sachs. “My dad took me to one of the bosses to get a suit. I remember the guy measuring me and putting his hands on my bum and saying: ‘He's got no tuchus.’”

That was Sachs’s first time in court. His job was to pass his father the different law reports.

The judges rejected Solly’s argument, but suspended his sentence so he didn't go to jail. 

In the meantime Sachs was also running foul of the law. He joined the Defiance Campaign, and was arrested for sitting on a General Post Office bench reserved for “non-whites”. 

It would not be his last run-in with the authorities. 

After graduating, he became an advocate and as a result of his work and activism he was served with banning orders. In 1963, he was held without trial under the 90-day detention law and placed in solitary confinement. He was released and immediately rearrested.

Sachs tells the Oasis residents that he was filmed for the Albie Awards singing in a prison cell. He pauses and begins to sing an adapted version of Irving Berlin’s Always. 

Instead of “I’ll be loving you, always”, he sings: “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 ...”

It was the song he sang in his cell to keep his spirit alive 60 years ago. 

After 168 days in solitary confinement he was eventually released. However, he was arrested again two years later and subjected to torture by sleep deprivation and savage interrogation. When he was freed, he left SA and continued his activism in exile — first in England and then in Mozambique, where he worked as a law professor at Eduardo Mondlane University.

Albie Sachs and his wife Vanessa September at home in Clifton.
Albie Sachs and his wife Vanessa September at home in Clifton.
Image: Ruvan Boshoff

In April 1988 Sachs unlocked his car ... and bang. The apartheid security forces had planted a bomb in his car. 

Delivering an address at the Time of the Writer Festival in 2011, Sachs describes waking up in hospital. 

“Everything suddenly was dark, totally dark. I knew something terrible was happening to me. I didn’t know what it was. And in that total obscurity, I hear a voice speaking to me in Portuguese, saying: ‘Albie, this is Ivo Garrido ... You are in the Maputo central hospital. Your arm is in a lamentable condition. You must face the future with courage.’ And into the darkness I say: ‘But what happened?’ And I hear another voice, a woman’s voice, saying: ‘It was a car bomb.’ I fainted into euphoria ... They had come for me, and I’d survived!”

When Sachs awoke after a seven-hour operation, his eyes were covered and he couldn't see. He told himself an old joke about Himie Cohen, who falls off a bus, gets up and moves his hands over his body as if to make the sign of the cross. And someone says: “Himie, I didn’t know you were Catholic.”

“What do you mean Catholic? Spectacles ... testicles ... wallet ... and watch.”

Lying on the hospital bed Sachs did the spectacles, testicles, wallet test. 

“I started with testicles. When the word went round the ANC camps, I who’ve tried without success all my life to be macho suddenly became a huge macho hero: ‘And the first thing comrade Albie did was reach for his balls.’”

After establishing that his testicles were in fact intact, his left arm explored the rest of his body and he discovered a gap where his right arm should be. 

“I say to myself: ‘It’s only an arm, it’s only an arm, I’ve only lost an arm.’ I sink back into euphoria knowing that I’ve survived. And with the total utter conviction that as I get better, my country, South Africa, would get better.”

Sachs returned to SA after the ANC was unbanned in 1990 and was a major architect of the post-apartheid constitution. 

“The lawyers played an important role in finding the final words,” Sachs tells the Oasis residents, “but our great constitution was due to the huge input of people from all different backgrounds, who were able to find some common set of principles and values.

“The constitution has stood up, and there are parts that can be changed and maybe need changes, but our democracy and the freedom to speak out, to organise, to criticise, to demand change, to mobilise is well entrenched.”

President Nelson Mandela appointed Sachs to serve on the first bench of the Constitutional Court under then chief justice Arthur Chaskalson, another activist featured in Mensches in the Trenches. 

In our discussion at Oasis Sachs asks me to talk about the book’s title. 

I explain that a mensch is a person of integrity and honour; someone who will do the right thing, such as standing up to injustice even — and especially — when it’s difficult to do so and comes at great personal cost. It’s the ultimate Jewish compliment to call someone a mensch, but of course a true mensch is too modest to want to be called a mensch.

Mensches in the Trenches symbolises the people who rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty in order to do the right thing. 

I add that when the book came out my mother shook her head and pointed out that the plural of mensch is not “mensches”, but “menschen”. If there’s a sequel to Mensches in the Trenches it will be called Honourable Menschen.

“Wolfie Kodesh, who worked behind the scenes, should be featured in Honourable Menschen,” suggests Sachs, adding that Kodesh, a journalist, hid Mandela in his flat when the security police were hunting for him.

'Mensches in the Trenches' symbolises the people who rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty in order to do the right thing

“Wolfie’s nieces placed a bench in the Bo-Kaap with the inscription: ‘Wolfie Kodesh, MK Activist and Mensch.’ So, there’s a bench with a mensch,” says Sachs.   

There’s a bench with a mensch and of course, Sachs was the mensch on the bench. 

He paid a heavy price for his courage: two brutal spells in solitary confinement, exiled, had his right arm blown off and lost the sight of an eye in a car bomb — and yet when he talks about it there’s no anger or bitterness; only humanity, humility and humour. 

These qualities of fairness and generosity of spirit underpin his life as a freedom fighter, lawyer and judge. It’s little wonder that the Clooneys have chosen Sachs, who is in fact an ubermensch, to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award in Pursuit of Justice.


“We overcame apartheid in a relatively bloodless way, and that was huge. We South Africans did it. That meant dealing with centuries of racist thinking and massive, glaring inequalities in our society. And we dealt with that to create the foundations for finding a way forward. So, having overcome all those heavy, heavy things, I think we South Africans can overcome the problems of today.”


Albie Sachs hung up his judicial robes in 2009, but still reads Constitutional Court judgments and agrees with the rulings “at least 19 times out of 20”. “It’s satisfying for me to feel that the judges are following good reasoning, and creating new themes and new ideas that are rich and strong and very brave. One of my heroes is Sisi Khampepe, who was acting chief justice, and I've seen recent appointments, like Owen Rogers, who is highly regarded by his colleagues, and Jody Kollapen, who is thoughtful. It’s wonderful for me to see judges from all communities in South Africa finding their place on the top court. As an institution, the judiciary, I would say, is very strong.”


Other recipients of the “Albie” are Nobel Prize-winning Filipina journalist Maria Ressa, who will receive the Justice for Journalists Award; iACT, an international organisation that works alongside survivors of genocide and other mass atrocities, which will receive the Justice for Survivors Award; Viasna, a human rights group that has led a brave campaign for democracy in Belarus, will receive the Justice for Democracy Defenders Award; and Dr Josephine Kulea, the Kenyan women’s rights campaigner and founder of the Samburu Girls Foundation that helps to rescue girls from child marriage and female genital mutilation, will be honoured with the Justice for Women Award. The awards take place on September 29 at the New York Public Library.


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