Pacific speaker embodies the paradox of the new South Africa

“We heard apartheid was a ‘time bomb,’” said Albie Sachs, but “The paradox is, it was our passion to create a boring society.”

The international civil rights figure spoke to a Pacific University crowd last week about the transformation of South Africa from a brutal government to a democracy. For Sachs, the ‘bomb’ became literal in Mozambique, where he’d spent years in exile fighting for the freedom of all South Africans of color.

Sitting informally on a table in a Pacific classroom, the empty right sleeve of his tunic testifying to the car bomb he survived in 1988, Sachs quietly described returning to consciousness, hearing a voice explain that he would lose his right arm.

“I fainted into oblivion with a sense of joy. I knew I’d survive. I’d only lost an arm. I would get better. My country would get better.”

It wasn’t Sachs’ first brush with death. In 1963, he spent 168 days in solitary confinement, tortured repeatedly. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘If ever one day I would be in a position of power, I would never do this to another human being.’ Then I would be like them.”

Yet after the car bombing and the loss of his right arm and sight in his right eye, some of his fellow freedom fighters called for vengeance. Was the South African regime torture bad and African National Congress (ANC) torture okay?

The son of Jews who had fled to South Africa from Lithuania, Sachs was raised to see all people as equal, no matter what their color.

The country’s first free elections were held in 1994, electing Nelson Mandela leader of the ANC, the new president of South Africa. Mandela had spent 27 years in prison. One of his first orders of business was to appoint Sachs to the Constitutional Court.

“It was a close election. Where was the balance? How could we have a shared country? A friend said, ‘What we need is a truth commission.’ The ANC wanted to come in with clean hands, to look at its own shortcomings,” Sachs recalled. “Could we link amnesty to the truth commission?”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) went all over the country, where people from both sides of the conflict could talk about their experiences. It made all the difference, Sachs noted. “Nuremburg trials would have been terrible, resulting in civil war.”

One of the members of the TRC was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “Judges don’t cry,” Sachs pointed out. But “Tutu cried. You can’t be neutral about torture. “

Sachs described his own very personal experience with the TRC. “I was in my judicial chambers when I was told a man named Henri had come to see me. “This was the man who had tried to kill me. He said he was going to the TRC.” Henri saw Sachs at a party much later. They shook hands. “Later I heard he had gone home and cried for two weeks,” Sachs said.

This is not to say South Africa has no more problems. “There are still massive inequalities,” he noted. “But truth, coupled with a wonderful new constitution, is opening the way to a common history.”

Are there lessons here for the United States?

“Your constitution is strong enough to transcend some of the nonsense in an active, dynamic society,” Sachs said. “But there’s a lot of denial in the United States. You need to convert knowledge into acknowledgement. For us in South Africa, that’s been a huge piece.”

The paradox continues. “There is still so much inequality. And yet the advances have been extraordinary.”

Sachs visited Pacific through its Center for Peace and Spirituality, aided by a gift from Loren and Dottie Waltz, longtime Forest Grove residents.

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