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The NS Interview: Albie Sachs, lawyer and anti-apartheid campaigner

“If you’re fighting for justice, your methods have to be just”

“If you’re fighting for justice, your methods have to be just”

You spent 11 years as an exile in Britain. How do you feel about the country now?
Ambivalent. I speak the English language, I was brought up on English literature - that was a very big part of me. Yet it was Britain that established the empire and that colonised. Britain brought the gallows, which we didn't have in South Africa, and the pass laws.That created a huge ambivalence, which was only resolved at an emotional level when I came to the UK as a refugee.

You mention the gallows. One of your first acts as a judge in the constitutional court in South Africa was to initiate a debate on the death penalty.
That was very much reinforced by my experience at the Bar in South Africa. Young advocates, just out of law school, would be given capital punishment cases to defend as part of our training. I felt a sense of horror at human beings cold-bloodedly taking the lives of other human beings.

How did it feel to shake the hand of the man who organised the car bombing in which you lost your arm?
He went away absolutely elated; I almost fainted. I heard afterwards that he went home and cried for two weeks. That moved me very much. To me, that was far more valuable than sending him to jail for what he might have done as one of thousands of soldiers who did awful things. He was now becoming part of the new South Africa. It was good for me that, instead of his being some kind of anonymous figure who tried to kill me, he was now a person, Henry van der Westhuizen.

This was part of a larger process of "truth and reconciliation". How important was that?
It was an absolutely vital moment. If the rancour caused by untold pain and hardship had continued, we would have carried on in South Africa with the same divisions we had under apartheid.

What were the discussions like inside the African National Congress during the anti-apartheid struggle?
We used the phrase "so-called-human-rights" as one word for a long time. This was when Henry Kissinger was using human rights arguments as a basis for training assassins and torture squads all over Latin America. It was Latin Americans who got me to change. I was at a conference and some Latin Americans were speaking about "derechos humanos" with the same passion and commitment that we spoke about national liberation. That washed away the "so-called". There was a strong feeling in the ANC, especially under the leadership of Oliver Tambo, that if you're fighting for justice and freedom, your methods have to be just and free.

You've written that you had mixed feelings on the eve of the first post-apartheid election in 1994. Why was that?
What's the poem about a dream deferred? This was a dream realised, but realising the dream robbed you of the capacity to dream it and to imagine it. You've spent your whole life fighting for something - in our case it wasn't independence, it was the vote for everybody - and suddenly we are there and the whole horizon has gone! But I loved the election. That was fantastic. Seeing the people - black, white and brown - doing that led to a huge sense of achievement. But actually voting myself was the biggest anticlimax of my life.

You stepped down as a judge two years ago. What did you do next?
The first year was hectic for me. I got six awards; I met President Obama at the White House. On the surface everything was fantastic, but I felt hollow inside, bereft. It felt like my whole life since I was 17 and sat down on a bench marked "Non-whites only" was at an end.I'd never been a spectator on events, I'd always been a participant. It was as though I was bereaved for a year.

Was there a plan for your career?
There wasn't a plan, but I was a volunteer for destiny from my second year in law school when I entered the freedom struggle. That was all-enveloping.In a way, I didn't stand a chance - I was named after Albert Nzula, an African activist and trade union leader who died before I was born.

Is there anything you regret?
The only regrets I have are connected to my relationships with women, especially with my mother. I regret that I didn't hold her, that I didn't have a warm, cosy, affectionate relationship with her. There are things in my life that I fought for and believed in that turned out to be very wrong. But that's not a regret. You don't regret having believed what you believed.

Are we all doomed?
No. I think predictions of doom are often self-fulfilling. I've seen huge changes - and changes for the better - in different countries and different areas of life, many of which I believe are irreversible. So, for all the conflict, spite and rancour that we see around us, I see more of the qualities of goodness and human interconnectedness that I think will save us from doom.

Defining Moments

1935 Born in Johannesburg to Lithuanian-Jewish parents
1963 Held in solitary after defending people accused of breaking apartheid laws
1988 Loses right arm and is blinded in one eye after his car is blown up by South African security agents in Mozambique
1994 Nelson Mandela appoints him a judge of the new constitutional court
2011 His memoir, The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter (1990), is reissued

The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, Souvenir Press, the revised and updated edition, 2011, with a new introduction by Professor Njabulo S Ndebele and a new epilogue by the author in the Independent Voices series.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times