February 12, 2007
Sachs embodies South Africa’s painful past, hopeful future
BY carol clark
Albie Sachs vividly recalls the day he was working in his chambers in Johannesburg, where he is a justice in South Africa’s highest court, and his secretary told him that “a man called Henry” was there to see him.
“He had telephoned me earlier in the week to say that he was the one who had organized the bomb that had thrown me out of my car, cost me my arm, an eye, and had almost killed me,” Sachs told the rapt crowd that had gathered to hear him speak Feb. 5 at the Michael C. Carlos Museum.
The caller, a former South African military intelligence agent, told Sachs that he wanted to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to seek amnesty for the 1988 bombing. He also wanted to meet Sachs.
“I remember opening the door and looking,” Sachs recalled. “He’s looking at me, I’m looking at him, thinking, ‘This is the man who tried to kill me.’ We sat down and we talked and we talked and we talked.”
Sachs visit to Atlanta last week was part of the 2006-2007 Distinguished Speaker Series, organized by Emory’s Center for the Study of Public Scholarship and Center for Humanistic Inquiry.
A soft-spoken, eloquent man, Sachs wears his long right sleeve dangling over the stump of his arm, which he often raises and gestures with in a natural, animated way when telling a story. It makes the stump seem less of a defect than a powerful symbol of struggle and survival.
The bomb attack occurred in Maputo, Mozambique, where Sachs was living at the time. He said everything went dark after the blast. In his confusion, he recalled people trying to pick him up, which filled him with fear that he was being taken back to prison. “I remember saying, ‘Leave me, leave me! I’d rather die,’ in Portuguese and in English,” he said.
He was elated when he woke up in a hospital to learn that, not only had he survived, he was a free man — which made the loss of his sight in one eye and most of his right arm seem relatively minor.
In addition to mutilation by the bomb, Sachs endured two spells in prison and years of exile for his anti-apartheid activities. He continues to serve as a champion of human rights and helped in the reconciliation and renewal of South Africa.
By relating his own life events, Sachs gave Emory students and faculty a vivid account of many key moments in South Africa’s recent history, including the government’s brutal oppression of those who defied its policies of discrimination, and the country’s effort to come to terms with the past through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Thousands of victims of the National Party’s violent oppression told their stories before the commission. About 7,000 people who had committed atrocities under apartheid also testified publicly about their acts, in exchange for amnesty.
“We heard the stories from the killers and torturers themselves,” Sachs said. “It was extraordinary, like an opera running for a couple of years, affecting the soul and psyche of our nation.”
Sachs’ would-be assassin was among those granted amnesty in 2001. When someone in the audience asked if Sachs had forgiven Henry, he replied: “I don’t use the word ‘forgiven.’ It somehow doesn’t capture the emotional feeling that I have. I feel that Henry took the initiative to become a part of the new South Africa. And he had the courage to come and see me.”
In honor of Sachs’ visit, Theater Emory staged a reading of “The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs.” The play, adapted from Sachs’ autobiography of the same name, portrays the 168 days Sachs was held in solitary confinement without trial in 1963, when he was a young lawyer and anti-apartheid activist.
Tim McDonough, artistic director of Theater Emory, directed the reading and also played Sachs. He was supported by a cast of nine other Theater Emory actors, who took the roles of sadistic guards and interrogators — Sachs’ only visitors during his confinement.
Midway through the reading, the audience in the Schwartz Theater Lab was asked to sit in silence and stare at the walls for three minutes, to provide a glimpse of the terrible weight of monotony that descends when a person is trapped in a small room, alone, with no distractions. The seconds stretched out uncomfortably as the theater filled with an almost palpable, collective ache for political prisoners throughout history who have spent years locked away in silence.
Sachs sat front and center in the audience, and stayed for a discussion with Emory students and faculty following the performance.
A history major from Zimbabwe wanted to know how Sachs and his activist comrades had prepared themselves to survive in jail “and maintain your personal dignity.”
“There’s no way you can prepare people,” Sachs said. “I personally don’t think there’s a technique. What I found interesting was, through all the books I’d read, we had our culture of heroes and you feel like you’re strong enough that you won’t break. That’s not so.”
Distinguished Speaker Series
The next guest in the 2006–2007 Distinguished Speaker Series, “Envisioning and Creating Just Societies: Perspectives from the Public Humanities,” is K. Anthony Appiah, who is the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton with a cross-appointment
at the University
Center of Human
Values. He will address the topic “Understanding Moral Disagreement” on Thursday, April 12 at 4 p.m. in the Carlos Museum Reception Hall.