Anti-apartheid icon


Friend of Mandela shares his experiences

By Allison Hight
U-M Law

Just weeks before Michigan Law students begin taking final exams, Justice Albie Sachs, one of the original justices on the Constitutional Court of South Africa, recalled for them a tale from his own law school days: In 1956, days after completing his final set of exams, he anxiously wondered if he would be put on trial for treason after yet another government raid against supporters of the burgeoning anti-apartheid movement.

Justice Sachs, the speaker at this year’s William W. Bishop Lecture in International Law, held a standing-room-only crowd captivated for an hour and a half with his talk entitled, “Getting to Know Nelson Mandela.” Divided into what he called “three acts,” he told his decades-long story of fighting apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and his role in establishing the new South African government when apartheid ended.

“How many of you in this room can remember where you were on the 6th of April, 1952?” Sachs asked his audience as he began. “Well, I remember where I was.” Justice Sachs, born and raised in South Africa, entered law school shortly after the beginning of the apartheid era and wasted no time getting involved in the fight against his country’s policy of legalized racial segregation. He recalled that on April 6, 1952, while many white South Africans were in the streets “cheering the system of white supremacy in South Africa,” he and 200 other people had gathered in the local town hall “singing the songs of resistance.” That day he told his neighbor, “I want to join.”

Justice Sachs met Nelson Mandela early on in the struggle against apartheid. “At that point, he wasn’t the Nelson Mandela—he was just some lawyer called Nelson Mandela. We never would have met otherwise, but we did meet because of our hatred of and common resistance to apartheid.”

As the struggle went on, Justice Sachs had a firsthand view of how Mandela distinguished himself and rose as a leader of the movement. “In 1956, I had just completed my final law exams,” he recalled, “when the front door bell rang at four in the morning. It was a search. It wasn’t the first time we had had these raids, but on that day 156 people were raided and put on trial for treason.”

Although Justice Sachs was not tried then, Mandela was, and Justice Sachs remembered that as “the trials dragged on and on,” Mandela began to become the face of the anti-apartheid movement.

“There were five or six lawyers amongst the accused, and they decided to defend themselves—just for something to do. One of them stood out, quite literally: Nelson Mandela.

“He was taller than everybody, and he had an eloquence, a command of the situation, a focus—people would listen when he would speak. And that was the moment when Nelson Mandela started becoming Nelson Mandela.”

Justice Sachs also recollected the ways in which he suffered for his own anti-apartheid work. He was sent into exile in 1966 and was the victim of a car bombing in 1988, when he lost half of his right arm and the sight in one of his eyes. When he was recovering in the hospital, he received a note saying, ‘Don’t worry Albie, we will avenge you.’ “Avenge me?” he said to the audience. “You’ll cut off their right arms, make them blind in one eye? No. If we get democracy, if we get the rule of law, that will be my self-vengeance.”

In what he called “act three” of his story, Justice Sachs skipped ahead to 1995, after apartheid had ended and when Mandela appointed him, along with 10 other judges, to serve  as the first panel on the newly established Constitutional Court of South Africa.

 “President Nelson Mandela is sitting in front of us. The room is jam-packed. We’re all very excited,” Justice Sachs described to the audience. “And Mandela says, ‘This Court will be something on which our democracy hinges.’”

Justice Sachs explained what the beginning of his time on the Constitutional Court was like and how the first few post-apartheid years tried the Court’s strength.

 “We were all overjoyed at having the Constitutional Court, at having a constitution, and we all had a special admiration for Nelson Mandela. And how did we show our admiration? Six months later, we struck down an important proclamation that Mandela issued. That’s gratitude for you,” he joked.

In what he described as one of the first tests of the strength of the Constitutional Court, Justice Sachs said that Mandela accepted the Court’s decision to strike down his proclamation with grace. “Mandela said, ‘At the time I adopted these laws, I was advised by my legal counsel to do so. The Constitutional Court now tells me that that advice was wrong. I, as president, must be the first to accept my obedience to the constitution as determined by the Constitutional Court.’”

Justice Sachs recalled that the judges were “overjoyed” by Mandela’s reaction.

“To me, that day was one of the most important, because that was the day that South Africa became not just a democracy, but a constitutional democracy.”

Although Justice Sachs said that South Africa still has a lot of work to do to combat ongoing corruption, racism, and inequality, he has confidence in its ability to keep moving forward.

“We have a lively, free, open press; our judiciary is one of the strongest in the world; and we have a country with a constitution that enables the citizens to insist on the things that we were fighting for.”