“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.
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.