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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Activist and Jurist, Albie Sachs, reflects on Human Rights in Post-Apartheid South Africa

ALBIE PHOTO.pngOn October 2, 2014, the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change hosted honored guest, former South Africa Constitutional Justice Albie Sachs, who delivered a lecture concerning the "Challenges and Successes in Post-Apartheid South Africa." Dr. Albie Sachs is a highly distinguished human rights defender and opponent of the South African apartheid regime. The writer, lawyer and former South Africa Constitutional Court Justice's passion for human rights work began at the age of 17, when he participated in the Congress of the people at Kliptown, and eventually went on to serve the South African Constitutional Committee and the National Executive of the African National Congress (ANC) during South Africa's transition to democracy. In 1994, President Mandela appointed Dr. Sachs to serve on the new Constitutional Court.

Dr. Sachs began his discussion of post-apartheid South Africa by outlining the formation and inauguration of the Constitutional Court. He stressed the powerful nature of the Court, comparing it to the United States Supreme Court. Yet, unlike the US Supreme Court, the South African Constitutional Court has the capacity to expand upon its rights "more comprehensively" as he framed it, even to the point of declaring certain elements or the entirety of the Constitution unconstitutional. Dr. Sachs frequently spoke of the fundamental values essential to a successful, democratic constitution, and how the new South Africa initially struggled to find a unified and cohesive conception of what these values should be. He labeled one camp "group A," referring to the ANC, who firmly held that the Constitution ought to be drafted in a way to protect the minorities. The other camp, or "group B," felt that such a Constitution drafted by a self-appointed group, without a democratically elected mandate from the people would prove to be illegitimate and possesses no real authority. Dr. Sachs, along with the audience, concluded that both camps were in fact justified. In order to accomplish both visions, Dr. Sachs supported what he called "accommodation" rather than "compromise," as accommodation indicates a desire to respect and protect one another: it signals a country based on inclusion, in which "we can live together" in harmony. The new leaders of South Africa then underwent a two-stage process, in which they drafted an interim Constitution to be in place until the general elections. A conscious effort was made to consider the concerns of both camps in drafting the initial version. In order to determine whether the new parliament had complied with the interim constitution, the Constitutional Court was created. The parliamentarians were given two years to draft an official constitution for the new democracy. Their initial version was in fact deemed unconstitutional by the Court on certain counts and was amended before it was officially made law. According to Dr. Sachs, this action elevated the status of the Court and the Constitution. He expressed great pride that the Constitution was drafted and accepted by the South African people, rather than having been crafted in a foreign western country, like many modern constitutions are today.

Dr. Sachs' pragmatic but unconquerable optimism for his country characterized the remainder of his talk as he outlined the achievements and set backs present in South Africa today. He did not deny the vast and pervasive racial inequality that remains, the growing economic gap between classes, the immense corruption of state officials and the general lack of security experienced by most citizens in South Africa. However, he commended his country for its survival and its continued existence, the centralized education system, the unified army structure, the advancement of the economy, the existence of social welfare, improvements in hunger and housing opportunities for the poor and an overall sense of freedom. Sachs observed that "people who say nothing has changed in South Africa mean nothing has changed in their own heads," adding that the vibrant politics and civil society of South Africa will only be bolstered by the "Born Free" generation of the post-apartheid era, whom he believes possess the necessary creativity and mechanisms to deal with the current issues.
Dr. Sachs also stressed that a state cannot function on ideals alone, but requires strong institutions that respect everyone, including minorities and especially the opposition. If the state does not give a voice to the opposition, some one else will, presumably another hostile actor that could pull a country into civil war, which we see happening all across the African continent. Furthermore, the state must do its best to provide remedies within the judicial process, or else bitterness may find other, more destructive outlets. In the question and answer portion, Dr. Sachs expanded on the unique strengths of the South African Constitution. Seen as one of the most progressive in the world, it preserves not only civil and political rights but also a number of social, economic and cultural rights, including its forward-thinking stances on capital punishment, same-sex marriage, gender equality/gender-based violence and shelter. Under the Constitution, South Africans therefore, have "the right to be different," and this he deems is in fact crucial to the health of the nation. In line with his overall pragmatic optimism, Dr. Sachs concluded that the fight for the Constitution should allow us to be "basically" optimistic for the future of South Africa.

The Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change is hosting a screening of Dr. Sachs's life, Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa on November 14 from 4:00 to 6:00 pm in Cowles Auditorium - Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Written by Marie-Christine Ghreichi