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The Mass Media

South African Anti-apartheid Activist Albie Sachs Visits UMass Boston


“It’s not simply that the bombers have been identified and caught. … You caught them maintaining a certain dignity and resolve, a sense of togetherness, without hysteria, without using torture.”




Anti-apartheid activist Justice Albert “Albie” Sachs, appointed to the Constitutional Court of South Africa by Nelson Mandela in 1994, lost much of his right arm and the sight in his right eye when his car was blown up in Mozambique in 1988. On April 29, 2013, about 25 years later, Sachs came to UMass Boston to talk about the recent Marathon Bombings.

The audience consisted of about 15 students and as many faculty, staff, and administrators, including Chancellor J. Keith Motley, who stopped by toward the end of the talk, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Patrick Day, and Marcellette Williams, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Student Affairs & International Relations at the University of Massachusetts.

Sachs’s parents were both Lithuanian Jews; he was born in Johannesburg. In 1952, when Sachs was a 17-year-old second-year law student at the University of Cape Town, he took part in the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. Sachs was one of the thousands of protesters arrested, but he was let go when a judge learned that he was still a teenager.

He was arrested again in 1963 and endured five months of solitary confinement in 1963. Shortly after his first stint in jail, Sachs spent another six months imprisoned, and was tortured using sleep deprivation.

He is now an avid anti-torture advocate. He explained that he felt “a great sense of pride” at the way the Boston Marathon bombers were eventually tracked down. “It’s not simply that the bombers have been identified and caught. … You caught them maintaining a certain dignity and resolve, a sense of togetherness, without hysteria, without using torture.”

In 1966 the regime allowed Sachs to move to London on the condition that he never return. While there, Sachs earned his PhD at Sussex University. In 1977, he moved to the newly founded country of Mozambique, becoming involved with the African National Congress (ANC), the main opposition to the South African apartheid government. During this time, the apartheid government was assassinating ANC activists all over the world.

In 1988, when Sachs went to drive home from from the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, where he taught, his car exploded. The bomb killed a passerby, destroyed Sachs’s arm, and blinded him in one eye. A journalist carried Sachs to the nearest hospital against the wishes of a police officer who was yelling not to move the body (“Can you imagine being bureaucratic and I’m dying?”).

“Bombs are just awful,” Sachs told the room. But he isn’t interested in vengeance. Sachs is a firm believer in restorative justice. In fact, he’s acquainted with the man who arranged to have him killed, a former supporter of the apartheid government named Henry.

“Part of the price he pays, said Sachs, “is I talk about him all over the world to different audiences, and he can’t complain.” Henry contacted Sachs voluntarily after the fall of the apartheid government, then went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to tell everybody what he knew about the attempt on Sachs’s life.

“Henry’s not my friend,” Sachs explained. “I wouldn’t phone up and say, ‘Henry would you like to go to a movie with me?’ but if I’m sitting on a bus, and he comes and sits down next to me, I’ll say, ‘Oh Henry, how are you getting on?’”

Sachs underwent a lengthy recovery process in England. “Are there nurses in this room? Did any nurses come? They played such a big role in my recovery,” he said. “I remember the one that changed my arm took out some shrapnel and said, ‘Let’s get rid of this piece of rubbish,’ and I said to her, ‘That’s not rubbish; that’s part of my car!’”

“It was organized concern, human concern, organized love in the form of the hospital sector — people expressing the kindness, the healing, that humanity’s currently offering. So I read the stories about the nurses here in Boston doing that, and my heart is just so warmed.”

Sachs was also taught to walk again by a physical therapist. “If I love the nurses, I adore the physical therapists,” he quipped.

Throughout the talk, Sachs gestured with what he called his “short arm.” He does not have a prosthesis, and doesn’t want one. “I tried the prosthesis for two months,” he said. But he isn’t interested in pretending he never lost a limb, and as he told the audience, he’s “got a very good left hand.”

Sachs has written several books, and he is one of two people to win South Africa’s prestigious Alan Paton Award for literature twice, in 1991 and 2009. In 2005, he authored the South African legal opinion that effectively legalized gay marriage in that country.

Still, he remains modest about his achievements. “I was just one of virtually hundreds,” he said, describing his role in writing his country’s constitution.

He also doesn’t see himself as the important freedom fighter that the apartheid regime mistook him for. Instead, he attributes the assassination attempt to “the racist imagination of rulers of South Africa,” who couldn’t understand “black people … organizing resistance,” and assumed that Sachs must have been “stirring them up.”

“By trying to blow me up … they gave me a role I would never have had,” he said.