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Look back in anger

Anti-apartheid champion Albie Sachs had mixed feelings about the UK. However, now aged 84, he is returning to Bloomsbury to take part in the 70th anniversary celebrations at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, where he studied in the 1980s

15 March, 2019 — By Dr Sue Onslow

Albie Sachs

A stalwart member of the African National Congress (ANC) and its campaign to overthrow apartheid, Albie Sachs recalls his first trip to the UK in 1966 when he arrived here “a mental wreck after solitary confinement in a South African gaol”, and found it a very conflicting experience.

“I had such ambivalence towards the UK because, on the one hand, it was a country
that was willing to receive me – I would walk on Hampstead Heath and watch the kites flying and I couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t be arrested and locked up and put in solitary confinement the next day. It was just amazing. And I appreciated the fact it was a country to which I could go, and I could study, and I could write, and I could publish.

“On the other hand, I kept feeling that if Britain hadn’t effectively been involved in the conquest of South Africa and the establishment of the white-dominated state in 1910, we wouldn’t have the struggles over apartheid.”

Sachs, now 84, is paying a return visit later this month to the University of London’s Institute of Common­wealth Studies (ICWS) in Bloomsbury where he studied in the late 1980s.

He recalled: “Anybody who’s worked with refugees knows this [deep ambivalence]. You also put onto your host state a lot of your anger, because you can’t get at those who’ve displaced you: they’re too far away. So, you get at the features of the society that’s receiving you that reminds you of the negative aspects. And then I would feel, ‘This is crazy. I’m here in the UK being given every opportunity to establish a family life, to do a PhD [at Sussex] and to have books published, and yet I’ve still got a bit of rage inside me.”

Sachs will be back in Bloomsbury on March 25 to deliver the conference keynote for ICWS@70: The ICWS and Human Rights – one of a series of events celebrating the institute’s 70th anniversary, it will feature four panels, each addressing historic and contemporary areas of the ICWS’ work in human rights.

Judge Albie Sachs, former member of the South African Constitutional Court, went on to help create the post-apartheid South African Constitution, and he prepared for that role at ICWS. He described his ICWS fellowship as a “very, very positive” time, which helped him intellectually “to sit down and think”, and emotionally to come to terms with his deep-seated ambivalence towards Britain.

As a lawyer, advocate and activist – and as someone who had been in and out of South African prisons during the apartheid era – Sachs had been very involved in the activities of the ANC from a very young age.

Over the next 15 years, Sachs remained ambivalent about the Commonwealth and its role in the anti-apartheid struggle – and towards the UK in particular. When he returned to London for a second time, in 1988, it was as “a physical wreck. I’d been blown up [in Mozambique by a bomb put in his car by South African security agents]. I was semi-conscious; I’d lost an arm… I came literally on a stretcher, and what had such a big impact on me, really, was the nursing I got in the London hospitals.” He credited the compassion and care of the NHS nursing staff as instilling an affection and respect for the UK which he had not felt before.

After the unbanning of the ANC in February 1990, for a while Sachs continued to commute from the ICWS to South Africa, before transferring to the South African Constitution Studies Centre. “Those years gave me the time to sit down and think,” he said, “to do research and write up the implications of what were really the ANC’s approaches to all these issues, to spell them out. I think they would have been read certainly by lawyers on the other side: by people interested to know what the ANC’s positions were.

“The advantage was [that] I was doing this as a professor. So, people knew I was from the ANC, but if it’s an official ANC document then you have to send it to the committee, the National Executive, and they disagree with this formulation or that formulation and nothing ever gets out and everything formally approved becomes rather bland. So, that was very, very positive.”

Sachs is an excellent example of clear, dynamic links between the worlds of academia and politics that can produce vitally important outcomes for domestic and international politics.

The 1996 South African Constitution is rightly regarded as one of the most liberal in the world, as it incorporates a detailed bill of rights which expressly forbids “discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth”.

• Dr Sue Onslow is deputy director of the Institute of Common­wealth Studies (ICWS)

•ICWS@70: The ICWS and Human Rights is at the Senate House Library, Malet Street, WC1E 7HU, on March 25, 2-6pm. Tickets £10. https://commonwealth.sas.ac.uk/events/event/17971

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