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Sunday, October 3, 2010


Michael Green reviews Albie Sachs’ sixth book.

The story of Albie Sachs is well known – an anti-apartheid campaigner, the victim of a bomb attack that cost him an arm and an eye, and, in the new South Africa, a distinguished judge of the Constitutional Court.

He is also a very fluent and persuasive writer, as is shown once again in this, his sixth book. He has been politically aware from childhood – his father was Solly Sachs, a well-known trade unionist whom I remember well from my days as a young newspaper reporter - but in this book he doesn’t dwell much on the distant past. He has written before about his personal experiences. This book is mainly concerned with court cases in which he has been involved over the past 15 years, and they make very interesting reading.

Judge Sachs, who retired recently from the Constitutional Court, seems to embody the qualities of calmness and conciliation that are so necessary in South Africa today. Some of his most impressive writing is on subjects that are not political but are philosophical in the broad sense, for example religious differences (“The secular and the sacred” is the heading of one chapter) and same-sex marriages. And he quotes extensively from his own judgments in controversial cases.

The picture that emerges is one of an essentially reasonable and civilised person. It is sad indeed that someone like this was detained in solitary confinement by the apartheid government, tortured by sleep deprivation, and eventually hounded into long years of exile. And it is a consolation to know that he has now taken his rightful place in society and has been able to make a great contribution to its well-being.

This well-written, modest and absorbing book is highly recommended.

The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law by Albie Sachs is produced by Oxford University Press. - Michael Green