When South African freedom fighter Albie Sachs was grievously injured by a car bomb meant to take his life, an African National Congress comrade vowed vengeance. But Sachs, now a justice of the South African Constitutional Court, wanted to take a higher path and follow the rule of law.

May 17 was Albie Sachs Day in Boston. The 81-year-old anti-apartheid activist, former political prisoner, onetime exile, car-bomb survivor, architect of the South African Bill of Rights, and justice met with City Counselor Tito Jackson and students and faculty at Boston Latin School, and he heard his day proclaimed by Mayor Martin Walsh.

But the real purpose of his visit was to meet with Suffolk students, faculty, and friends at the final session of The Past Is Never Dead, a unique collaboration between Suffolk’s Philosophy Department and Beyond Conflict, a Boston-based nongovernmental organization that helps countries in transition from repression and violence toward a peaceful future. The course focused on confronting history in divided societies as part of transitional justice.

Activism at a young age

Albert “Albie” Louis Sachs was born into a politically active family in Johannesburg, South Africa. His own activist career began at 17, when he joined the African National Congress, or ANC, and began to defy the apartheid government and its principles. At 21, he began his legal career defending people accused of violating the racial laws of apartheid. He was imprisoned twice and went into exile in 1966, eventually settling in Mozambique. In 1988 he survived an assassination attempt by South African security services, losing his right arm and the sight of one eye. Sachs’ book, The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, describes his personal recovery from the car-bombing alongside the rise of the new South Africa.

"Soft vengeance"

Sachs told the class how he came to view vengeance. Shortly after the bombing, he got a letter from an ANC comrade, saying, “Don’t worry, Comrade Albie, we will avenge you!” He says his first thought was, “What, are we now going to cut off the arms of people, and blind them in one eye? That’s not what I want.”

When word came that one of the perpetrators had been caught by the Mozambique police, Sachs said he thought: “If that person is tried in court, and there isn’t enough evidence to convict, then I hope he is acquitted, because that will be under the rule of law. That will be my soft vengeance.”

The rule of law

Said Sachs: “Surely it is better that the rule of law be upheld than that one rascal should be in jail.” This insight—that the institutions of a free society are more important than individual wrongs—was an important contribution to the transition process.

A critical feature of South Africa’s transition to democracy was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Sachs is passionate about informing people of its true history. The idea began at a meeting of the ANC to determine an appropriate response to the use of torture by ANC members. The leadership was divided; some said that those responsible must be held accountable, while others pleaded for understanding of the circumstances. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created as a way to address the harms committed by both sides, so that, as Sachs put it, “the ANC could come into the new government with clean hands.” Later, when the white South African security forces said they could not protect the first free election in South African history if that election were to lead to their imprisonment, it was Sachs who suggested tying truth-telling as a condition of amnesty. It was in this context that he said, “Punishment is not the only form of justice. Such justice limits human potential, and deprives justice of its full meaning.”

Pragmatic and idealistic

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was both a pragmatic response to the situation in South Africa and highly idealistic. It had three components; the “listening section,” led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, through which people recounted their stories of wrongs suffered and committed; the “amnesty section,” where each petition to receive amnesty in exchange for truth was reviewed; and the “reparations section,” where petitions for financial reparations were reviewed and approved. Sachs expressed regret that reparations were paid individually and in symbolic amounts; he thought that reparations should be used to aid communities more than the families of individuals.

But his disagreement with how reparations were used in South Africa is precisely the point. In the old South Africa, disagreeing with the government was dangerous; now, it’s standard behavior for individuals, the media, and even government institutions such as the Constitutional Court, which recently ruled that both the president and the South African Parliament had failed in their constitutional duties. This is the soft vengeance of Albie Sachs; a free, democratic South Africa is his country, and his former enemies—now, his fellow citizens—are living in it under the protection of a constitution, a bill of rights, and the rule of law.

—Lauren McGillicuddy