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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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood