Albie Sachs at Clare Hall. Photo: Phil Mynott

Albie Sachs at Clare Hall.
Photo: Phil Mynott

Justice Albie Sachs has the power to inspire. He gave Clare Hall’s Ashby Lecture on Monday 6 July on the subject of “Liberty, Equality. What happened to Fraternity [Human Solidarity]?” With rugged kindly face, deeply tanned by the sun, and gloriously colourful South African loose shirt, he contrasted strongly with the audience who had been asked to attend in ‘business attire’! A master communicator and story-teller, he sat throughout his presentation on an upright chair in front of the audience, waving sometimes his stump (he was blown up in a car bomb in 1988) and sometimes his good arm, talking quietly. And indeed he was, in the words of our host and President of Clare Hall, David Ibbetson, utterly spell-binding.

He identified himself as a secular Jew, whose family had been resolutely internationalist. He did not speak much of the ANC’s struggle against the apartheid government, but the aftermath of armed struggle was the setting for his reflections primarily on his experience as a judge on the post-apartheid Constitutional Court. His quest in those years, as seen through the lens of retrospection, was to find ways of characterising, capturing and harnessing the positive essences of humanity and civilization to the resolution of the problems that found their way up the legal cascade to the highest court in the country. Thus he helped forge a decent nation out of the dangerous maelstrom and anger of conflict, with its inevitable caravan of grievous wrongs, resentments and hatreds.

Many of us in the UK admired South Africa under Mandela’s leadership, promoting peace through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other means. From Albie Sachs we heard a simple account of courage and humanity, told in stories (particular cases that had come to the Constitutional Court). We understood his ambition to achieve peace and mutual respect within the rule of law. What was wonderful and moving was the absolute centrality and penetration of the highest human values into every fibre of the debate. We had the privilege of seeing beneath the packaging of the new South Africa, and had a glimpse of the workings of one among what must have been so many mechanisms working towards the same end: the care for and integration of every single human being into the new South Africa, as if they mattered.

For human solidarity, read ubuntu  According to Wikipedia, President Obama spoke about ubuntu at President Mandela’s memorial service, saying, “There is a word in South Africa – ubuntu – a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us…..”

One case that gave great anxiety to “Albie the Human” was the Port Elizabeth squatters case. Clearly there was no right answer – but the Court (“Albie the Judge”) had to manage the situation. It would have been an affront not only to the squatters, but to all of us (said “Albie the Human”), if they had been evicted without having a voice, without a meaningful engagement. There is “a thumb on the scales in favour of the rich” – and both Albies worried about this.

He accused David Cameron of withdrawing into a “silo of hurt pride” in considering withdrawing from the European Convention of Human Rights. The Government, he said, would be setting a terrible example for reasons which are difficult for an outsider to discern: so sad, profoundly undermining one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. How could David Cameron say that it made him sick to think of prisoners voting? The lack of humanity towards prisoners is, Justice Sachs suggested, a blind spot in Britain. The right to vote is simply a way of acknowledging that everybody counts.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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