Albie Sachs first debated terrorism with his fellow exiled leaders of the African National Congress 30 years ago.
Black South Africans had been experiencing terrorism at the hands of the state for quite a while, Sachs told a crowd of more than 150 at the University of Montana Law School Monday morning. With events of the 1970s, however, the ANC was confronted with a choice: Would they themselves use terror against civilians to fight an oppressive state?
The decision, Sachs said Monday, would ultimately define not only the anti-apartheid movement, but the entire character of the post-apartheid South African state.
Although Sachs did not directly address the attacks on the United States in his speech Monday, his discussion of terrorism and the ANC provided a unique perspective on the current international climate. Sachs, a white justice on South Africa’s constitutional court, went from being a student civil rights activist to a jailed freedom fighter to an exiled intellectual to a target of vicious state-sponsored violence to an influential and revered jurist and author.
Sachs was born in Johannesburg in 1935. He earned a law degree in Cape Town and became a civil rights lawyer and activist in the 1950s and 1960s. Jailed twice by the secret police and detained without trial, he spent 168 days in solitary confinement in the 1960s.
Sachs was in exile in England working on his doctorate when the debate over terrorism erupted within the ANC. The inspiration came from the militant Palestinian group known as Black September, which drew international attention throughout the 1970s for its high-profile hijackings, kidnappings, and murders of civilians all over the globe.
The ANC faction that included Sachs rejected the model of Black September and ultimately prevailed. In the 1980s, a new wave of violence against black South Africans brought the issue to the table once again. At the ANC Exile Conference in Zambia in 1985, Sachs remembered one speaker advocating terrorism through a parable: Two men are in a fight, savagely beating one another with sticks while their wives look on. One wife says to her husband, “You are not winning because you are only fighting with one hand. In one hand is your stick but in the other hand is a blanket to hide your nakedness.
Drop the blanket and attack with both hands and then you will win.”
The meaning was apparent to all at the conference: The ANC was hobbling its efforts by limiting its attacks to military and government targets and by being too cautious. Sachs wanted to give a philosophical speech in response, but did not need to rise in rebuttal.
“The much more savvy audience just laughed and moved on, and that approach was repudiated,” Sachs said. The ANC was already looking ahead to a post-apartheid state. Violence may have “hastened the fall of apartheid,” Sachs said, “but we would have inherited ruins, not a country.”
By the time of the Zambia Conference, Sachs was back in Africa, though not in his homeland. For most of the 1980s he lived in Mozambique, teaching law and working for the Ministry of Justice. Then in 1988, the South African Security Police bombed Sachs’ car in Maputo. He survived but lost his right arm and was blinded in his right eye.
Four years after it mutilated Albie Sachs but failed to silence or kill him, the South African government collapsed. Sachs returned to his homeland in 1992 to take part in the negotiations for a new national constitution.
“I remember Nelson Mandela standing up in a room smaller than this,” said Sachs, waving his arm across the spread of the UM Law School’s Castle Center. “He said, ‘The first time I stood up in this room it was to see if I was going to be hanged, and today it is to inaugurate the constitution of South Africa.’”
While forging ahead with a constitution that looked to the future, South Africa still had to come to terms with its past. Their attempt to deal with past injustice and violence in a “way that breaks the cycle,” Sachs said, was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission attempted to enter a full account of the 34 years of South African apartheid into the historical record. The 20,000-plus interviews encompassed both the victims and the perpetrators of apartheid’s violence.
The Commission ended up being a traumatic but cathartic lesson about the meaning of justice and memory for the entire country, Sachs said. Every base of influence in the country, from the press to the business community, was called to task for its complicity.
"We smiled when we saw these former elite and immune sectors of society being interrogated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Sachs said. “And then they turned to the judges and said, ‘Where were you?’”
Even if the hearings only exposed 20 percent of the truth, Sachs said, they will have succeeded because future generations will never be able to deny what happened during apartheid.
In order to draw such a full account of the apartheid era from the perpetrators themselves, though, the Commission ended up granting amnesty to many government figures.
“It was difficult to see people who did cruel and terrible things getting amnesty, but that was part of the project,” Sachs said. One such man was the ex-security police agent who showed up at Sachs’ office one day and confessed to planting the car bomb that maimed him.
“He seemed to be aggrieved, almost seeking sympathy from me,” Sachs said. The man, whom he identified only as Henry, was a “soldier, abandoned by his generals and repudiated by the politicians who were so eager to have men like him under their control.”
Sachs encouraged Henry to seek amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by telling his story in its entirety. Sachs ended his speech by relating how he ran into Henry at a party after the repentant agent told his story, as he had suggested.
“I put out my hand and shook his and he went away elated,” Sachs said. “And I almost fainted.”