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South African activist to visit Pacific campus

SachsAlbie Sachs was at the heart of the battle for racial justice in South Africa—a role he paid for with his right arm, which was blown off when a car bomb exploded in an attempt on his life.

Among his many honors, Sachs was appointed by Nelson Mandela in 1994 to the Constitutional Court of South Africa, where he drew international attention in 2005 as the author of a court decision which overthrew the country’s law defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

As an author, Sachs won two Alan Paton Awards for two separate books — the only person to do so.

He will give a free talk at Pacific University Tuesday, Nov. 5. Sponsored by the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation and the Center for Peace & Spirituality, Sachs’ talk is open to the public. His appearance is made possible by a gift from Loren and Dottie Waltz.

This week, Sachs took time from his busy schedule to answer some questions from the News-Times.

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News-Times: As a native white South African, how did you avoid growing up with the racist biases of so many other white South Africans? What made you and your family different?

Albie Sachs: My parents fled from persecution of Jews in Lithuania as kids. They grew up hating oppression. My mom worked as a typist for an African leader, Moses Kotane, while my Dad became a prominent trade-union leader. So the world of ideas and values I grew up in contradicted the world of racist oppression all around us.

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NT: Before the car bomb, were you worried that this might happen?

AS: Yes, a very close friend, professor Ruth First, had been blown up by a letter bomb sent to her at her university in Maputo.

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NT: What kept you going amid this horrible risk?

AS: We were in a struggle for freedom. There was risk everywhere. I didn’t think I would be a target, but was willing to take the risk.

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NT: How did the bombing affect your attitude toward your work?

AS: I felt fantastic that I had survived. (I’d faced) the moment every freedom fighter waits for, every day, every night: Will they come for me? They had come, and I’d been brave, and only lost an arm. I was convinced that as I got better, my country would get better. And I was right!

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NT: In South Africa, how would you compare the bias against black people to the bias against homosexuality?

AS: There are points of overlap. Both involved hating people, pushing them aside, for what they were. But they were very different forms of human nastiness. You wouldn’t get a young guy coming home and saying, ‘Mom, Dad, there’s something I’ve got to tell you: I’m black.’ The visible...the invisible...each form of oppression has its own character and calls for its own remedy. At the end, it is all a question of human dignity.

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NT: You’ve spent some time with Nelson Mandela. Can you relate a couple of personal experiences you’ve had with him?

AS: First, in the underground, deep, deep, literally in a basement, where we were meeting secretly, and the tall figure of Mandela comes down the steps, with his wonderful smile, gracious, comforting, strong.

And then in our crowded, makeshift, temporary courtroom, as we are sworn in as Justices of the Constitutional Court, Mandela lifts his tall frame and says: “The last time I stood up in Court was to find out if I was going to be hanged. Today I rise to inaugurate South Africa’s first Constitutional Court.”

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