Albie Sachs: The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law 7

There are not many books capable of bringing tears to your eyes before you’ve reached the Preface. Well in Justice Albie Sachs’ latest book: The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law, the unsettling reaction starts with an explanation of the blue dress depicted on the dust jacket.

However don’t be put off; if you’ve ever wondered what our Constitution is really about, or what the relevance of the Bill of Rights is, this book is a must read.

Early sections of the book describe Albie Sachs’ life, his realisation at 39 years of age that he was classified as a “terrorist” because he belonged to the African National Congress (ANC), his detention in solitary confinement, the treatment he received, and the conclusion he reached:

“that if ever one day I would be in a position of power and authority, I would never do this to another human being. When you are totally powerless, you try to imagine yourself in a situation of command in relation to those who are humiliating you. And what is the greatest power you can exert? It is not to do unto them what they are doing unto you.”

Justice Sachs describes the influence of Oliver Tambo on the debate that took place within the ANC – on whether to use torture; he insisted that all members including the young soldiers of Umkhonto we Sizwe were required to give input to the question. Their answer was a complete rejection of torture.

At this point one may stop to consider whether if citizens of any country were allowed an open vote on terrorism, whether the current prevalence internationally of torture and terrorism would still exist.

If you ask how can a man who lost his right arm in the struggle, sit in judgement and not seek revenge, this book will answer your question.

You will also understand how the values now enshrined in our Constitution evolved from debate within the ANC.

Justice Sachs’ personal history and experiences lead naturally into the first few Constitutional Court cases described – on issues related to terrorism and torture: the Azapo case that questioned whether the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could grant amnesty to “torturers and assassins”; the Mahomed case deciding on whether Mahomed could be deported to the United States of America if he would be executed if found guilty; and the Basson case on whether it was a Constitutional Court matter that a trial court quashed charges against the former head of the bacteriological and chemical warfare programme.

He succeeds in making clear what our rights are and how they are protected. The language of the book is so easy to understand, the reader is quickly drawn into each case.

There is the Hoffmann case of discrimination: South African Airways refused to allow a steward living with HIV/Aids to continue working. The Court found that this did constitute unfair discrimination and instructed SAA to allow him to work as a steward until his actual state of health indicated to the contrary.

Also in the Chapter on the Enforcement of socio-economic rights, there is the incredibly interesting Jordan case. Whatever one’s personal stance on prostitution – or sex work – the explanation of what the issues under debate actually were, and how the Judges differed, gives the reader a depth of understanding rarely if ever obtained from a media commentary.

The Port Elizabeth Municipality case about the eviction of poor black families from shacks, or the Grootboom case describing the desperation of people left without housing as a result of eviction, fire or flood are further examples of how the court gives effect to the principle of “human dignity”, which weaves through the cases – including the question of the rights of innocent children whose parents are sentenced.

The variety is so great: laughter is the question in the SAB versus Laugh it Off matter; and in another direction entirely, the Daniels case gave rights to women married by Muslim rites; the Prince case sought the right of Rastafarians to use dagga as part of their religious practice; and on another tack entirely, are the cases brought by same sex partners.

One can only hope that this book, which is so wonderfully easy to read, becomes a core text not only for legal students, but also for all secondary and tertiary students. For young people lured into our fast moving technology rich world, it is important to know from where we’ve come, and how much we still have to do to realise the values of our Constitution – Mrs Grootboom has now died without her family ever being adequately housed.

Buy a copy of this book and make a date with yourself to read it over one of the forthcoming public holidays.

Prepared for the skills portal

By sylvia hammond

31 March 2010

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7 thoughts on “Albie Sachs: The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law

  • Nkosinathi Mkhize

    The preface sounds well and worth a read, I will get myself a copy. This book, from what i gather, is about the rights of humankind. I would urge all of us not to use this very platform to bring in matters through the window, otherwise such will spoil the fundamental subject matter:this book.

    Thanks Sylvia

  • Andrea Mammes

    It is truly amazing, and so typical of South Africa, that on one level, we have such profound values and truths.
    Yet on another level life goes on for those who did not read the book, were never educated in the morals and etical principles of the constitution, who kill and torture farmers and innocent women and children. Those people who have not experienced any improvements since 1994, who have to sit and watch the kleptocracy enrich themselves more and more, fraudulently take what righly belongs to all the people, not just a priviledged few. Glibly utter songs that the people on this other level take to heart, and act upon, not knowing the difference between fact and “culture”
    It reminds me of a poem that someone gave me when I was a very young student nurse, a long time ago:
    ” I hate you
    the way
    poor man
    can hate,
    you put
    his cottage
    on fire,
    and you sit aside
    watching the flames
    the burn”
    Would that the powers that be start feeling the burn!

  • Ian Webster

    Thank you very much. In those who gave birth to our new nation we were blessed with a rich store of sound intellect combined with a compassionate commitment to human dignity. On a par at least, I would suggest, with the USA’s founding fathers.
    I shall get the book.