Justice Albert Louis Sachs, a legendary human rights activist from South Africa, asserted his unwavering belief in equality and justice Thursday to students and faculty at a Visions and Voices-affiliated event at the Gould School of Law.
As part of the Allen Neiman and Alan Sieroty Lecture in civil liberties program, Sachs led a discussion about using the law to peacefully restore order instead of resorting to violence.
“The thing that kept us going, that enabled us to survive was the belief in humanity,” Sachs said. “That is far more powerful than all the instruments of destruction.”
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Sachs was appointed as a judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa in 1994 by Nelson Mandela and served until his retirement in 2009. In 2005, Sachs gained international attention when the court overthrew the statute that defined marriage to be between a man and a woman.
As an advocate for progressive politics and egalitarianism, Sachs said he faced violently radical opponents who almost cost him his life. The room grew silent as Sachs described waking up after a car bomb detonated inside his car, destroying his right arm and his sight in one eye.
Despite the loss, Sachs said the attack only strengthened his fight for justice and equality in South Africa. Though some supporters vowed that they would seek revenge for what the car bombers did with violence, Sachs discouraged this.
“What kind of vengeance is that?” Sachs said. “If we get democracy in South Africa, that will be my soft vengeance.”
David Jolivet, a second-year law student, said that Sachs’ physical disability represented his effort and commitment to his cause.
“I think it’s almost symbolic of the sacrifices that he made,” Jolivet said. “He carries around that reminder wherever he goes, and yet he is still able to forgive, and I thought that was pretty powerful.”
Sachs said that forgiveness is a powerful component of his political beliefs.
Sachs said he is opposed to using torture to punish those who violate human rights and instead supports public hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which perpetrators of violence in South Africa publicly state their crimes as a form of punishment and a way to request amnesty from prosecution.
Allison Scott, a second-year law student, said Sachs’ support for restorative justice is a very “un-American” idea but is important to understanding our legal system.
“If we don’t listen to other people who have a different perspective, then we’ll never re-evaluate or confirm certain values that our legal system might have,” Scott said.
Joel Frost-Tift, a second-year law student, said the event made him think about using his education to support those who are unrepresented.
“This event was a reminder of what you can choose to do with your law degree,” Frost-Tift said. “The power of your knowledge can be used to help underrepresented populations, just like Justice Sachs has done.”