Human rights giant recalls working alongside young Mandela
It Is rare enough that a figure of genuine international stature can slip almost unnoticed into the country and tell his extraordinary story to a relatively small audience – a tale of politics and law and the birth of a new nation.
But this is what transpired yesterday when an audience consisting largely of legal eagles, members of non-governmental organisations and community groups was riveted by a compelling account of political survival which is a case of literal life or death, as opposed to the metaphorical fights which take place along this country's corridors of power.
Justice Albie Sachs – a giant of the struggle for freedom in South Africa – was the guest speaker at the Public Interest Law Alliance conference in Dublin. In the early 1950s he became a human rights activist at the age of 17, ended up in solitary confinement without trial for five months, and was forced into exile in the 1960s, during which time he worked with the leaders of the ANC to draft its code of conduct. In 1988, he lost an arm and the sight of one eye in a car bomb and, in 1994, President Nelson Mandela appointed him to the newly formed Constitutional Court where he was the main architect of the country's post-apartheid constitution.
Judge Sachs was in Dublin for the conference but, alongside Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, he also took part in the unveiling of a commemorative plaque outside a house in Foxrock, where he and the late Kadar Asmal drafted the South African Bill of Rights in 1988.
Addressing the conference earlier, Justice Sachs gave a fascinating account of working alongside young lawyer Nelson Mandela before he was imprisoned on Robben Island for 27 years. He recounted the trial that sent Mandela to jail for three decades, in which the then-young lawyer made a statement from the dock before being sentenced. "He told the court, 'I have spent my life fighting against white domination and fighting against black domination – I believe in equality for all, these are the ideals from which I have learnt, and these are the ideals for which I'm prepared to die.' He disappeared after that for 27 years," said Justice Sachs.
"These were the last words South Africans heard of Nelson Mandela for 27 years, and yet silence can be very powerful, and silence became a huge mobilising factor, and in a way the potency of Nelson Mandela was greater when he was locked up and gagged, than at almost any other time in his life."
The judge then described the day that the new, democratically appointed court sat for the first time, on February 15, 1995.
"We were in a small, jam-packed room, there were 11 people wearing green robes and Nelson Mandela came to his feet and said, 'the last time I stood up in court was to find out if I was going to be hanged. Today I rise to inaugurate South Africa's first constitutional court'.
"It was such a special day, not only for those of us who were sworn in, but for the country," he said.
And it seems that this new court possessed one rare characteristic – humility. When it was invited to attend a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to explain the role of the judges under apartheid, they chose instead after much debate among themselves to submit a document accepting blame.
"We sent a document saying the judiciary failed the people, we failed because we applied apartheid rules," he said, explaining that this applied to human rights injustices such as allowing evictions on grounds of race, and not preventing the authorities from using torture. "We let the people down, and that's in the document," he added.
We let the people down.
Can you imagine a document written by any branch of Official Ireland – the Government, judiciary, HSE, Catholic Church, for example, containing this simple admission of responsibility?
No, I can't imagine it either.