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Sept. 20, 2011
Former South African Constitutional Court Justice: Freedom Requires Absolute Commitment to Human Rights

As people today struggle for freedom in places like Libya, a veteran of South Africa’s war to end apartheid told of how the only way to succeed in any struggle against oppression is to start first with upholding human rights and the rule of law.

A packed Supreme Court of Ohio Courtroom served as the backdrop for the dramatic and inspiring life story of Albie Sachs, former Justice on the Constitutional Court of South Africa, who spoke Tuesday evening as part of the Supreme Court’s Forum on the Law lecture series.

The program was presented by the Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law, the Columbus International Program, the Ohio Judicial Center Foundation and the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Internationally recognized for his lifelong efforts to bring justice to South Africa, Justice Sachs began his career as a civil rights attorney.

As a member of the African National Congress (ANC), Justice Sachs was at the forefront of the nation’s struggle to end the brutal system of apartheid, the legal racial segregation forcibly imposed by the government of South Africa between 1948 and 1994.

Sachs told Tuesday of how the ANC was labeled a terrorist organization, leading to warrantless searches, detentions, and torture by the majority government.

He recounted how he himself was detained in solitary confinement, tortured with sleep deprivation and forced into exile. In 1988, while teaching law in Mozambique, he lost his right arm and was nearly killed by a car bomb planted by the South African security services.

Looking back, Justice Sachs said the detentions and interrogations he endured were worse than the physical trauma of the bombing. “The attack on my body was far less damaging – although more visible – than the attack on my dignity and on my mind,” he said.

Because of the brutality of the South African regime, Sachs said one of the most difficult challenges internally for the ANC was to not give in to the temptation to respond with brutality of its own, which he said was absolutely necessary to avoid “the ravage that’s done to the human soul” when groups or individuals violate basic human rights.

“Being called a terrorist became a justification for violating the most fundamental rights,” he said. “It turned the whole justice system inside out.”

By becoming one of the only liberation movements in the world to eschew terrorism and establish a written bill of rights the ANC was able to overcome the oppression and violence of apartheid and transition to a free democratic South Africa, Justice Sachs said.

Following a difficult recovery from the bombing, he returned to South Africa and helped negotiate an end to apartheid rule. As democracy took hold, he drafted the Bill of Rights for the new Constitution and successfully advocated for an independent judiciary. Nelson Mandela appointed Sachs to the country’s Constitutional Court in 1994.

Over the course of his 15-year term, he confronted major issues facing both South Africa and legal systems throughout the world. Drawing on his artistic sense, he took an active role in the design of the new Constitutional Court building in Johannesburg. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described it as “the most beautiful court building I have ever seen.”

Since retiring from the court in 2009, he has traveled to many countries sharing the South African experience in healing divided societies. His latest of seven books, “The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law,” was published in 2009.

The program will be broadcast on the Ohio Channel. For scheduling information, visit www.theohiochannel.org.

Learn more about Albie Sachs' life story

Flash video Watch a video about the South African Constitutional Court building