Architect of South Africa’s constitution returning to where it all began

Albie Sachs worked out the first draft of South Africa’s bill of rights around Kader Asmal’s kitchen table in Dublin during the late 1980s

Freedom fighter: Albie Sachs was appointed by Nelson Mandela to South Africa’s fledgling constitutional court and became the primary architect of the 1996 post-apartheid constitution

Freedom fighter: Albie Sachs was appointed by Nelson Mandela to South Africa’s fledgling constitutional court and became the primary architect of the 1996 post-apartheid constitution

Mon, Mar 24, 2014, 01:10

Seven-year-old Oliver Sachs can be heard playing in the background as his father, Albie, speaks over Skype from his home in Cape Town. “People say he keeps me young,” Sachs says of the boy. “I retort, I keep him young because he gives me a chance to be really infantile, and that’s great fun for us both.”

At 79, a lifetime separates the retired constitutional court judge from his third son. The South Africa into which young Oliver arrived is a very different country from that of his father’s upbringing. Current issues around crime and violence notwithstanding, Oliver was born in a free South Africa. And for that fact alone, his father can take some credit.

When he addresses the Public Interest Law Alliance conference in Dublin this Friday, Sachs will no doubt mention the kitchen table in Kader Asmal’s former Dublin residence. It was sitting there, in the late 1980s, that he started work on the first draft of South Africa’s bill of rights, a document which would become integral to the country’s new constitution.

Shortly beforehand, he was almost killed by a car bomb in Mozambique. South African security agents orchestrated the attack in which the ANC activist lost his right arm and the sight in his left eye. Despite the injuries, Sachs’s very survival made him feel “joyously alive”. As he told the Guardian a couple of years ago, he had the “absolute conviction” that as he got better, his country would get better.

Bill of rights
After leaving hospital, he was tasked by the constitutional committee of the ANC with drafting the bill of rights for his country. “It was phenomenal for me,” Sachs recalls. He travelled to Dublin to work with Asmal, then a law lecturer in Trinity. “We were aware at the time of the momentous nature of what we were doing,” he said later. Sachs would go on to play an instrumental role in South Africa’s transition to a constitutional democracy.

In 1994, the newly elected president Nelson Mandela appointed him to the fledgling constitutional court, set up to enforce the country’s new constitution, of which he had been a major architect. Now, some two decades on, he considers that document the country’s “greatest achievement”, one of which he is “exceptionally proud”.

Born in Johannesburg in 1935 to parents of Lithuanian Jewish background, Sachs began his anti-apartheid activism early.

In 1952, the 17-year-old University of Cape Town law student attended the Congress of the People where the Freedom Charter was adopted. At 21 he faced harassment from the security police for his work as an advocate at the Cape Town Bar, with most of his clients charged with offences under the apartheid statutes. His movements were restricted and at one stage he was subjected to 168 days in solitary confinement without trial.