The University of Cape Town Alumni Leadership Forum has developed a well-deserved reputation for hosting leaders from diverse fields offering interesting, and thought-provoking presentations – followed by superb catering, and wonderful conversation.
The March Cape Town event was no exception. It featured a different format with Judge Dennis, well known to the general public for his TV appearances – most recently eTV’s “Judge for Yourself” – moderating a panel question and answer session with Justice Albie Sachs.
He was present to provide some thoughts and description – and to sign copies – of his latest book: The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law. Justice Sachs opened with a description of his student years; a young student torn between the traditional student life and the need to fight the manifest injustice of apartheid.
He observes that the legal systems of other countries generally correspond to the needs and interests of the middle classes, but apartheid legislation both magnified the level of control and blurred these interests – making it appear that it was just of race.
He passed lightly over his period of detention in solitary confinement and the loss of his right arm in a bomb explosion.
Justice Sachs leaves his position of Constitution Court Judge after 15 years – having been appointed by President Nelson Mandela. He says that his book is not intended to “solve the great jurisprudential issues” of our age, but rather to describe his experience of being on the bench of the Constitutional Court, implementing what he refers to as the “poetry of our Constitution”.
With panel members: Professor Pierre de Vos – who holds the UCT Claude Leon Foundation Chair of Constitutional Governance equally recognisable to TV viewers, Meryl du Plessis, Lecturer in UCT’s Department of Public Law, and Abongile Sipondo a Researcher in the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit in the same department, Judge Davis facilitated a discussion on our current level of Constitutional development.
Professor de Vos questioned Justice Sachs on “civilised dialogue”. What happens if civilised dialogue breaks down and someone is really rude?
Justice Sachs expressed concern about the word “civilised” – it used to mean “white”, he says. However he does wish that there were more civility in the painful and difficult issues that need to be tackled. There is a need to listen and to think – particularly about “hurt” caused, but judges need to defend the public right to speak out, so long as it does not infringe upon the human dignity of the other party.
He recalls how “irreverant, challenging, and cheeky” his generation were in their youth. The level of intensity cannot continue – we fought “with all our passion to achieve a boring society”.
Judge Dennis Davis is less optimistic in his view and challenges that we should not benchmark against apartheid – we should judge against something more substantial than that.
They reflected upon the Constitutional differences between South Africa and the USA – whereas the USA Constitution is essentially fashioned to limit the power of government, our Constitution is for transformation and change. Our Constitutional court gives meaning to this organising principle – there is a clear intention to move away from formalistic thinking.
The court itself is not hierarchically arranged, there is a collegiate culture; Justic Sachs suggests that there are 3 requirements of Constitutional Court judges: civility, collegiality and courage.
The court has worked hard on the judgements of the last 15 years because these cases lay the foundations for interpretation of our Constitutional rights. Justice Sachs believes that the court has succeeded in giving meaning to the rights embedded in our Constitution – he refers particularly to the Slum Clearance Act and the protection of the rights of the very vulnerable.
Although he is very positive about what has been achieved, Justice Sachs is saddened by the current obsession that it is wonderful “to be rich”. He reflects: “we fought for an intellectual, moral society”.
The UCT Alumni Leadership Forum has again succeeded in providing access to a leader we can all aspire to emulate.
Prepared for the Skills Portal
By sylvia hammond
7 April 2010
The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law by Justice Albie Sachs is available from: