INTERVIEW WITH ALBIE SACHS
13/07/11 Cape Town
Justice Albie Sachs, thank you very much for doing this interview today. When did you first meet Nelson Mandela and in what context?
My first recall is, as a young law student at the University of Cape Town, I would go every winter up to Johannesburg and I would pay my respects to the firm of Mandela and Tambo – crowded office – and Ruth Mompati, the office Manager, would meet me and take me through the room and offer me a cup of tea and call for either Nelson Mandela or Olliver Tambo to come and say hello and one of the other would come very polite, very courteous “How is the struggle going in Cape Town”, I always said “The struggle was going well”, “Sorry we don’t have much time to speak to you, you can see how busy we are”. It was really a courtesy call and I couldn’t have been received with more courtesy. That would have been in the early-mid 1950’s. And the next time I recall meeting him was deep in the underground, 1961 and very, very tense, the time of terrible repression, and we are all waiting with some excitement, the security people are tracking out, in-walks Nelson Mandela, it was literally like a saddle we were in, and he is a tall person and he would like bending down and he stood up and that wonderful [...] – we now call it Madiba smile – was there even when everybody is very, very tense. So these were 2 completely different memories that I have with early meetings.
Thank you. You become very animated as soon as you speak about him, it’s beautiful to see. What were your impressions of Nelson Mandela on meeting him for very first time?
I have given them.
I think what the question is possibly linking to is this, was there a hint then of the stature that he wouldattain?
I can’t remember vividly whether it was Nelson Mandela or Olliver Tambo, they like merged into each other as they did politically so strongly, they were really intensely close, different in style, Mandela, little more imperious, a little more impetuous in those days more upfront; Olliver Tambo, a little more reticent but each had that marvellous smile, that warm embrace; they belong to a generation, they didn’t stand out as individuals then, they stood out as people if they had to be in a mould, a mould of Albert Luthuli; and Albert Luthuli was the person who was sort of the prominent figure that embodied hopes and aspirations and style and that sense of embrace, I could see the new South Africa embodied, incorporated into the personality Albert Luthuli. And here where we now, as it were protégés of Luthuli, different from each other, but in that particular mould; afterwards, of course, each one became an exemplar in himself, continuously maintaining that sense of connection and huge respect each had for the other, each insisting the other was the top lead of the ANC – I heard that with my own ears and on different occasions – and each having that element of grace, of thoughtfulness, of a human empathy, willingness to listen and a deep, deep internal confidence, confidence that came partly from personality but very much from the sense of the justness of the aspirations, of their goals, of their vision.
Thank you. How active were you in his political activities in the years prior to his imprisonment.
I was in Cape Town, he was in Johannesburg. I joined the defiance campaign leading a group of young white people to sit in Cape Town Post Office on the seats marked “non whites only”. He was the commander in [...], not the commander in chief, the volunteer in chief – Volunteer No. 1- in Johannesburg, he had been earlier. But the remote figure, somebody I read about in the newspaper, but one of our leaders; and in Cape Town we always look to Johannesburg, that’s where the leaders were. It was very comforting to have leaders not in the sense of people you would blindly follow because they were leaders, but the feeling of intense intelligence and collegiality and thoughtfulness, being base at the centre, represented by individuals, but not simply the composite of the individuals, a kind of political intelligence and courage of which Mandela and Tambo and the others would have been simply important personalities. But they didn’t stand out then, it was only when the treason trial really got underway that from this large body of people who regarded themselves as the lieutenants of Luthuli, of all the 136 people on trial for treason, Nelson Mandela emerged as somehow the strongest presence. It was a physical thing he was physically taller than anybody else, it was an articulation thing, it was a clarity of expression thing, it was just a sheer was in which he would address an audience and be listen to, and some people started speaking more and more about “Did you hear that fantastic testimony that Nelson Mandela gave while in the witness box, and then he began to emerge as somebody, if you like, more equal that the other who would belong to that generation of equality.
Thank you. How much did Nelson Mandela mean, and to what extent was he involved in the activities of the anti-apartheid resistance in exile?
Mandela’s role in exile was purely symbolical but intensely symbolical; it was easier to capture international attention by focussing on a splendid individual with whom people could identify than to speak min abstract terms about the prisoners in Robin Island, although we always mentioned the other prisoners as well; and all the posters, the leaflets, the literature, all the names would be given of the Rivonia Trial lists, and mentions would be made of the women who were in jail, people elsewhere in the country in jail for other reasons, he epitomised, he spoke for, he became the ambassador if you like, the representative of all the imprisoned people and all the people in South Africa fighting for freedom. So, in some ways as a totally detached, independent personality, detached from his body, his actual voice – we didn’t hear his voice, we couldn’t see him, he was blotted out completely, he became exceptionally potent. And the ultimate for me was reached when I hadn’t been long out of the hospital after I had been blown up, I think it was late 1988, I went to my first pop concert – I didn’t know what do you do at a pop concert, you know, you use to bend up and I was kind of rather nervous; so it was me and 70,000 young British people, we were then called “yobs” and uninterested in politic, 70,000 “Free Nelson Mandela…”, and it was tremendous. And when Archbishop Edelstein came to the microphone and said “I am here to call for the release of Nelson Mandela”, 70,000 young people stood up and cheered and cheered, the song had ignited their interest and enthusiasm. But through him, he symbolised the freedom struggle in South Africa, symbolised the injustice of apartheid and such a fine person was being held in prison and the enduro-quality of the anti-apartheid struggle. So, in paradoxical way, his absence, his invisibility, being silenced became an intensely powerful voice that echoed around the world far more powerfully than if he had been travelling around, speaking at microphones himself.
So, the symbolic value was in fact more important than the real value?
The symbolic value became the real value, it wasn’t a contrast between the two.
Thank you. In what ways have you been involved with him, in the years after his release?
It was in early march 1990, I am in Lusaka doing work for the Constitutional Committee of the ANC and we told the Robin Island prisoners and the others are coming up to Lusaka; so, that’s after 30 years of separation, these different branches of the ANC are linking up again at Lusaka, immense excitement, that’s change, and it’s like “we’re winning, democracy is winning, it’s the breakthrough; and at the airport we hear the shouting and the cries as you can hear Nelson Mandela walking through the crowd on the tarmac getting closer and closer, and suddenly there he is in front of me; and to be honest I literally threw myself at him and embraced him with my arms and kind of stood back and smiled and he said “Tell me comrade Albie [...]” and he asked about my family by name. It was amazing after 30 years and we haven’t even been intimate, we haven’t been in correspondence, but he had heard that I had married somebody who’d been on the struggle and it was very lovely and then he moved on. And then he gave a speech that evening – it’s still vivid in my memory – he said “I am at the disposal of the ANC, I am an ordinary, I have been the member of the ANC since I was a young man, I will die (as) a member of the ANC”; then he said “If you give me a stick and a cap and a whistle, and you say you want me to be the night-watchman outside the ANC office, will gladly accept, I am in your hands”. He was really the point that he’s not coming out as the leader the messiah to lead the masses, but he’s coming out with the lead of an organisation, as a lead of the organisation at the behest of the organisation, the organisation commands him, he doesn’t command the organisation; and he used that vivid image of the night-watchman, you don’t see people quite like that today as you would have in the 1960s when he went into jail or even in the early 1990s. And that was a very vivid way of explaining how he understood his relationship to be; he was quite solemn then; it was a marvellous moment of reconnection, people we hadn’t seen since they were young and we were young and thin and black hair and now grey hair, we are bold and some have quite big bellies and at first we didn’t recognise and we re-encountered after 30 years; but the connection was very, very intense. And there was something sort of lofty about him – lofty in a nice sense of the word – sort of the posture that he wouldn’t rush and hurry, at the same time he wouldn’t brag or so (that) “he is a prince who needs somebody to hold up his train”; very easy meddling with people and very gracious and those elements were immediately evident he hadn’t come out of prison uncouth, raw, hard, inwards withdrawn, he’d come out as a person with bestthyl [bestow], with an ability to connect, to reach out, curious about the world, interested, loving to meet people, to touch people to be held by people, all of this was very evident.
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He came out as a person, not withdrawn, angry, inwards, beaten down, but as person with the kind of calm in ebullience, a lot of vitality, and you could feel how much he enjoyed connecting out with people, reaching people, touching people, he wasn’t the messiah “Follow me I am going to lead you to freedom”, it wasn’t that sense at all, it was south African re-emerging to meet up with his comrades, fellow south Africans, people who weren’t comrades but compatriots who belong to the same country; and that sense of the fan and pleasure of reaching out, proud, not bending the knee, not supplicating, not promising things, being as he was you just felt the attractiveness of the person in every way. And he embodied the pride of the struggle, the pride of the community, the pride of a nation, if you like, that refused to capitulate to the argument and logic of racism and division and denial; and that expressed that theme of humanity and the way we will survive in South Africa is not by stronger that the others by beating them in the way that they beat us, but by being more human than them and enabling them to discover them they own humanity. And he was so confident about it, it wasn’t a strain, it wasn’t a pitch, it wasn’t something he was doing to win over anybody; it’s who he was, and being like that he was epitomising something in maybe our generation, our movement, our struggle, our ideals, our hopes; he didn’t create it, but he articulated it, expressed it in a particularly affined, almost an aristocratic but a gentle aristocratic way that carried enormous conviction and made it easier for us to work in a collegial manner because the person who now emerged, just the prominent individual wasn’t obsessive, wasn’t concerned about the trappings and accumulation and show off and [...] If anything he would like to show off is how non-show off he was – if that’s not too much of a contradiction in terms.
To what do you attribute Nelson Mandela’s tremendous stature, both in South Africa and globally. I think you have covered that to an extent.
It’s clearly personality comes into it, and style and his literary style and his speaking style and his posture, great intelligence, he loved ideas, he loved argument, he loved debate, he loved listening, he loved contestation of ideas, in that sense of real, true democrat, you felt you can always learn from testing ideas; but it was connected with the personal warmth and an ease and strong sense of history, it was very widely read and thought for, I would say, would say deeply influenced by the Indian independence movement of his generation, the thought of Nero would have been important, he studied Marxism, amongst many other political philosophy; but developed a very south African voice and style and pronunciation, if you like, of our politics; and became deeply, deeply non-racial, through struggle, not simply through forcing his mind to say “Well, I want to believe that everybody is equal and so on”. Struggle on the island where people of the Indian origin were given little privileges that black persons didn’t have, they struggled together as prisoners, as human beings in a very forceful way and he’d seen already in the underground where white comrades hid him and took lots of risks together with him and joined Umkhonto We Sizwe, and risks their lives for the freedom struggle in South Africa. Through all those experiences, he imbibed the non-racial ideal and consciousness and somehow that got out when filtered, and whether it was the guards, whether it was the people he was negotiating with, whether it was people he was speaking to in Paris or in London or in New York, he was flashmobbed everywhere, he could do it with comfort and ease because of the strength of his vision and his internal – if you like – solidarity with himself, he was able to connect up with other people in that way.
How have you viewed the relationship between Nelson Mandela and the Jewish community as a whole?
It’s quite amusing to look back 1990-1991, I spoke to a lot of Jewish groups in Cape Town, by “lot” I mean a lot: Jewish women and Jewish seniors and there were even Jewish dentists, my friend Martin belonged to a group of dentists and said “Martin are you Jew as dentist or dentist as a Jew”; and 6 months latter he said “I am still thinking about that”. And the one question I would get over and over again – I am speaking about the freedom charter, a non-racial democracy and Jews are part of the nation and they come in as Jews, they don’t have to shed their culture and their vision and their beliefs to be part of this diverse nation, their emerging; and they would say “What about Yasser Arafat?; any question that seem to blot out almost everything else, until I guess it would have been about 1992, maybe 1993 and the Mayor of Cape Town, Patricia Sulcas said “Albie, will you come to the Marais Road synagogue on” – she gave the date. Mandela has been projected as a “saint and a miracle worker”; well one miracle I can attest true myself, and that is he got me to go to Shul. I grew up at the most secular world imaginable, but I gladly went because Nelson Mandela was going to visit the Marais Road Shul, the place was packed out, he was magnificent, one has to use that word. He came in like and elder with the other elders – well, now they are all rather proud to be connected with him, they didn’t ask him “Pss! What about Yasser Arafat?”. He spoke so graciously, they were tears down people’s eyes, he spoke about the Jewish firm of attorneys who has taken him on as an article clerk; he said many of you have got children in Australia and Canada and elsewhere, tell them to come home if they can come home, we would love them to come back if not keep in touch with them, tell them about the progress. He spoke with such affection and connection with the community, understanding where they were and he didn’t as I recall deal very robustly or directly with the question of Israel and Palestine; but whatever words he used would have been employed with sensitivity and yet without appearing to be sucking up to them or trying to “graciate” himself in any way. And I remember going up to Millie’s, that delicatessen quite nearby, and not long afterwards, one by one the people streamed in from the non-real fromose, the fromose wouldn’t get it to the delicatessen to buy some coffee, and they were all talking, “Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela”; and I think that changed the interrogation. The next thing I remember in that connection was Nelson Mandela coming up with the idea of a group of South Africans going to Israel-Palestine to make a contribution towards peace and the project of an independent Palestine, next to an independent Israel, both secured and proud and self reliant. I know Gill Marcus would have been involved in that, I was asked if I could participate; Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I think was very keen to participate and Nelson Mandela himself I think was thinking about it. But then his term as President came to an end; and then came the Sharon connection with the Muslim Tume and the 2nd Intifada and the atmosphere was destroyed, so that possibility was lost.
If I understand from that you didn’t identify yourself as a Jew, if you were brought up in a secular environment what was your identity, I am curious about that
I was a Jew, I am a Jew, it is part of my background, my history influences my culture in all sorts of ways. But you don’t have to be religious to be a Jew; you don’t have to go Shul to be a Jew. There are lots of people who go to Shul and who chief Rabbi Harris would have said are bad Jews, and they give to charity and they do all the right things, but in their hearts they’re bad Jews. Cyril Harris actually spoke wonderfully at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, like a prophet and magnificently at the funeral of Joe Slovo, and he said “Joe Slovo was a good Jew”; although Joe, like myself, was totally secular, didn’t go to Shul but was quite proud of the fact he had been born a Jew and had to [...] a certain heritage went with it, his Jewishness, if you like, would have come out through maybe certain taste in food, through his humour, through his style, his competivity, there are lots of different adjectives some based on stereotype that one would adopt, in my case I would see some of my dream in those millenarian thing. When I was in jail and the only book I had was the bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, I found a lot of the Old Testament very hard, very savage, very severe but the Song of Songs, the Solomon period was beautiful and gracious and then the prophets, the period of oppression and the balanced type of exile, the beauty of the language of the dream of the world not just for the Jews but for all humanity that reached very, very strong into me. so, one doesn’t have to be a Jew, a good Jew, if you like, if I could use the Cyril Harris definition, you don’t have to go to Shul, you don’t have to pretend beliefs that you don’t have, respect people who do go to Shul, that’s their right, that’s their belief, you respect the culture, you respect the faith as you would respect other faiths as well. You don’t have to have a pre-defined position in relation to Israel and Palestine because Jews fight and argue amongst themselves over that as non-Jews do as well. And certainly speaking for myself, I hate it to be imprisoned in a notion of Judaism and being Jewish that diminished me as a human being, as a person, as somebody with my own conscience and thought. If being a Jew meant anything to me, it meant respect for conscience, integrity of conscience the true person you are and the integrity of your beliefs; and if I felt that the person whom I was, whom I aspire to be and the dreams that I want to immerse myself in, perhaps influenced by a Jewish background and a history and a culture and so on, meant that I didn’t follow orthodoxy in anyway, so be it.
May I ask subsequent to that day that you went to Shul for Mandela, have you been back?
I haven’t been back as a congregant; I went to a Shul in London and I spoke at the Shul, I addressed the people there, it’s a very special Shul with that deeply religious person in charge but very concerned with the issues of the world and he felt a connection with me, even though I didn’t attend the religious part of the service I was quite comfortable being there, I had no problems with being there; in terms of my own world view and connecting up with people easily and comfortable, they all happen to be Jews I happen to be a Jew but not participating in forms of connect with tenets of religion, that I don’t share.
Nelson Mandela, in his long walk to freedom wrote “I have found Jews to be more broadminded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice…”; then the question, is there something specific to the culture of Jewish life and Jewish identity that explains the substantial contribution to social change and civic life in South Africa?
I think the history particularly of Jews who came from faith of pogroms in the Lithuania and couple with the Anti-Semitism in South Africa meant that Jews were not incorporated into white society with quite that facility that other white immigrants had. And I think some of the restlessness, some of that vision of the prophets, some of that millenarian view of making the world a wonderful place for every human being was part of the culture. At the same time I think one has to say “Jews were whites, participated in the benefits that whites got, a lot of the white racism and sets of assumptions seeped into the Jewish community as elsewhere” but there was enough of the legacy, the settlement, if you like, of the prophetic vision of the world. Many Jews joined the labour movement, they came as poor workers, first of all many were in the communist party, others joined the liberal party because of a certain hope for something better and a certain detestation of racism; and the extent to which Hitler and his supporters attacked Jews as such and the denial of humanity to people because they were who they were, I think that had an impact on the consciousness of the Jewish people. Some people then directed their energies purely to the vision of the future Israel others directed their energies to contest the apartheid, a few; some had one foot in either camp. But, I think it’s no accident that not only in South Africa where the race issues are so predominant, in many countries of the world, many, many Jews were active as writers, as critics, as philosophers, as academics, as medical people, as lawyers on the side of progressive, emancipatory thinking; and I think that has something to do with the history of persecution, of being displaced, of being forced to know the whole world whether you liked it or not; I think that became element in South Africa as well.
Mandela made tough foreign policy decisions when he started his world tour after prison, some offended the Jewish community, others did not. What is your take on those events?
He made I think a very, very important point. You don’t adapt your foreign policy to the immediate whims and needs of the moment and getting good headlines and to stroke certain people, you actually use respect if you do that. There were people who stood up for the ANC and back the ANC in very, very difficult years; and the 2 countries that [...] or the 2 personalities whom he insisted on embracing quite figuratively and literally, without necessarily embracing all the ideas ad policies, Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat. And he said upfront, he didn’t do it in clandestine ways, he didn’t denounce Arafat then whisper to the PLO “Don’t worry I am really on your side but I have to do this”. And to my mind is to the discredit of those people in the Jewish community who simply tested Mandela’s calibre by whether or not he’s friend of their friends; that they could not understand that, I think to this day they – many People – don’t understand that why took the position that he did.
Shed some light on the complexity of the Jewish community, Percy Yutar, prosecuted Mandela and others while Jewish and other lawyers defended the Rivonia trialists. So, how do you characterise the Jewish contribution to the South African struggle?
When I used to address Jewish audiences in Cape Town 1990, I would see few hundred people there, and I would see 3 things in that same group, the one would be people very responsive to culture, to ideas, the notion of freedom and you could debate the issues and ideas matter not only to Jews but somehow it’s quite strong; then I would see who are very community-oriented, looking after elderly, people in trouble and schools and Shul and things of that kind and that’s people’s right and to the extent that they relieve the state with certain burdens that is actually helping the society; and then I would see whites, whites with servants, with a lot of attitude those whites in South Africa had and all 3 elements would be connected up; and I guess in some individuals the first element the idealism, the love of ideas, the sense of compassion was very pronounced and one can think of marvellous people happened to be Jews and were relatively high proportion of those whites who took part in the struggle, very high proportion were Jews, so, that can’t be purely accidently. And then you would have at the other extreme, the people who, they didn’t see themselves as whites, but would absorb by the whole white culture and speak about those fractures and or if not using that language, would behave, with the same disrespect with that people in other countries show towards Jews in other circumstances. And then you would find individuals locating themselves along the spectrum in different ways. I would say though that only was there relatively high proportion of Jews amongst the real activists Denis Goldberg, there’s quite a long list one can give; the Orensteins and many, many more; Sam Kahn, as a lawyer he taught me so must preparing me for law; Hani Bernard, Marcy Jaffe, my doctor was more than just a doctor, the list goes on and on. But we were a small percentage of a Jewish community altogether, there was a much bigger group who were kind of liberal and descent and progressive and to whom you would go for support maybe raising some funds maybe some of them helped with the “End conscription campaign”, people hiding out, others would help with their writing, Gerald Gordon, in whose home we are actually conducting this interview at the moment, did marvellous work for civil liberties, his son and Nancy’s son, Steven, helped the people refusing to fight in the army, they weren’t directly with the ANC, maybe Steven had some connections with the underground; that was quite a large community and even larger one that would help out a little bit with through their professional work, would do their work as good doctors, as good lawyers, as honourable people, not refusing to attend simply because the people who needed nursing or healing or legal defence happened to be co-terrorists, whatever that might mean. But I think looking at the community as a whole there was heck of the lot on the other side; they’re not running around with big flags today, saying “Well, we supported the Nats or [...]” even the United Party which was pretty conservative in those days. So, there’s a sort of continuum which goes all the way through. I think quite striking would be Jews in the area of culture and one thinks of people like Nadine Gordimer, again very secular in her approach but the Jewishness of her background must have been a very important factor for her and a brilliance, sharp brain, intellectual critic of tremendous calibre; and then when it came to the play King Kong and I remember it so vividly in the 1950s, it wasn’t an accident, Spike Glesser with a lot of the music collaborating with [...]
[...] Collaborating with Todd Matshikiza, Leon Gluckman doing the staging, Harry Bloom with some of the lyrics, some of the words and so on. And it was partly the anti-racism, but partly their love culture and their willingness to enjoy the music and the song and the theme and [...]; so, that was a very rich area of intervention. Who was that [...]? Leonard Schach did quite important work in the theatre area; there was somebody in Jo’burg, what was his name [...]
[...] Toby Kushlik, whom I didn’t even know, I just knew the name; so it was an accident that Jews were so prominent in what initially were white cultural circles, broadening out to embrace or to connect up with very resurgent black culture that was emerging in the townships and in the urban areas, the connections were very, very vivid.
Just to go back to an earlier point you made, I can remember a strange sort of horror that I felt when I was in a Johannesburg Shul, and I opened quite an old prayer book and there on the back page was “Die Stem”, so, your kind of Jew was definitely the minority Jew in terms of how Jews operated in South Africa.
Certainly in terms of numbers; but it was quite a large spectrum goes on, you know the gradations; if I think of the lawyers, there were some like Rowley Arenstein, Joe Slovo -100%, he gave up he’s legal practice, an advocate to be in the underground and then to become a military commander afterwards, and then to become minister of housing – never losing he is tough, competitive Jo’burg advocate style Rowley Arenstein in the underground in prison, I was working in the underground also in prison. And then there was another grouping, people like Arthur Chaskalson, Denis Koenig, of a younger generation and then older people, Isie Maisels, Sydney Kentridge, it’s not an accident, it’s so many of them, and many of them quite brilliant lawyers, they didn’t work in underground as I know, maybe they did have some connections, but they did their work through the legal profession like to the maximum, providing brilliant legal defence, it was more than just technical legal defence, it was asserting the dignity of people who were fighting for freedom through the mechanism that the law allowed to be exposing torture, it would be giving people and opportunity, a moment, a platform to speak, to address the world when they were banned their works wouldn’t be quoted at all unless they were in a court when their words could be quoted maybe to some extent. And also the humanity of that they showed through the professional services I think was important creating the non-racialism that emerged in South Africa, it wasn’t exclusively Jewish by any means but the Jewish participation was very strong in that area.
Thank you very much. Could you speak about the Jewish contribution to the development of black performing arts under apartheid?
Black performing arts began to effervesce and break into the public domain in the late 1950s, against enormous odds; so, they were seeking platforms, outlets, channels, places completely dominated by whites; so, somebody like Linda Goodman, I think it was from her heart, her vision, her eye, she just sensed, she saw the vitality, its passivity of artists like Dumile Feni and others; she also saw the commercial opportunity, so one wasn’t against the other, but I don’t think she was driven primarily or even substantially by commercial objectives then, it was a love of art for people; and so, her gallery became a place where people could exhibit. One sees people like Leon Gluckman, the theatre director seeing the opportunities to participate in putting on the King Kong, helping to coordinate the whole project with the great singers and voices, people became famous afterwards and musicians Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, a whole generation emerged from that, and it wasn’t just that got opportunities, it was confidence, it was suddenly the emergent of range, the potential of what you can do and go abroad and perform for South Africans and break through all these barriers that were hemming people in, these were broken in many ways. But, I wouldn’t like to say that somehow or another the Jews were the pioneers who opened the way for black counter production; black people were expressing themselves very powerfully and Jews, amongst others Bernard [...],– what was his first name? – he did a tremendous amount of work for music and theatre; his daughter Linda is very active in the culture sphere now. So, they were many others, working like that and their contribution was significant and this part of the South African story, a prominent part.
Barney Simon played a particularly significant role through the market theatre, it was very intimate, it was very direct and Barney had a marvellous intuitive feel for theatre, he wasn’t a great writer himself but he could spot the writer in others, he wasn’t a great actor himself but he could spot the actor in others, and he knew how to bring people together and allow them to interact and to see the way the drama of everyday life, the drama on the street corner could now become a drama in the theatre that was totally at odds with the imported west and star lies over and ritualised, sophisticated, “look at these great actors” kind of drama; So, Barney’s contribution was very strong and very, very direct. Again not Barney on his own, he was part of the team, Mannie Manim and others, played quite a very important role there; but Barney maybe had more obsession more craziness in this area, maybe than anybody else and the results there were quite spectacular.
Thank you, you have 2 more questions. Can you give us a short tribute to Helen Suzman and her contribution to democratic change?
Helen played a very significant, very powerful role in the transformation in South Africa. Because she was like in the enemy camp, the kind of solitary brave voice speaking out, needling, provoking, using the institutions of racist domination from inside with a very strong voice, I mean I can even hear at Helen’s [...], the tambour of her voice, it was literally a strong voice in itself but a style of work and which an irony [...], the sharpness and the confidence that was very special. I owe Helen a tiny bit as Albie because when I was in detention she asked the question in Parliament about me, as she did about many others, and these little things accumulated, they just made me a tiny bit, I wouldn’t say more immune but less isolated and defenceless than I might have been otherwise; much more important was, she linked up with Robin Island prisoners, who had a much more robust philosophy than she did, and she saw them as human beings, as freedom fighters, people dignity, and they respected her so much – from what I can read and hear – for being that; and, you know, these tones about “who the hell is she, wattle boy coming in and [...]”, that entered the scene; what mattered was where she had something to contribute, she did and she did it well. She wasn’t the liberator of South Africa, she wasn’t the Joan of Arc, she wasn’t in that sense a freedom fighter in a way that millions of the very humble ordinary African women who were freedom fighters, but within the white community she was brilliant and she was meaningful and was part of that panorama, and I think the strength of the anti-apartheid movement came from its diversity, its range; and people did what they were good at doing, she wouldn’t have been good as an underground militant; I don’t think, with her philosophy, she was rather conservative in many ways, but she was brilliant as a speaker, as an accuser, as somebody exposing and denouncing the evil of corruption and violence of apartheid. She opposed the boycotts internationally, we were fighting for them, she conceded – the only one she would concede afterwards – where she would be wrong, she would say “there’s sports boycott”; but I think that’s partly because she didn’t like sports very much, it sounded relatively easy for her; economic boycott she never supported I think right till the end. So, in that sense she wasn’t on the side of, if you like, the masses fighting for freedom inside and outside South Africa; but if she’d been on the side of the masses, she would have been just another one with her own vocal capacity which would have been terrific. But she stuck to her lust, she did what she did she was good at and she did it brilliantly and well; I am true to say to be honoured; I am still hoping in spite of her own wishes that they will be a major street in Houghton named after her.
It has to be in Houghton of course.
It should be in Houghton, and all the contradictions of her life and the beauty of her life are represented by that.
Please, Justice Sachs, can you give us a short tribute to Judge Arthur Chaskalson and his contribution to democratic change.
Arthur is so formidable; I heard his voice just the other day where we were planning to do an oral history of the achievement of the negotiated constitution, and there was that firm voice, that clear thinking, the warmth, the humanity, quick thinking that he always had; and when you think of integrity, intelligence, sensitivity to context situations, you think of Arthur Chaskalson; when you think of somebody who works for the team, who organises, who respects others, you think of Arthur Chaskalson; and when you think of a legal brain, a quite marvellous legal brain you think of Arthur Chaskalson, you combine qualities that you don’t often get in one individual. It was remarkably up-choice to make him head of South Africa first constitutional court, I think it emerged as a marvellous court, excellent judicial organ that holds its hand with pride anywhere in the world and Arthur provided that steady leadership, but right at the prow, he was really at the prow of that project and endeavour from the beginning with the strength of his reasoning and his ability to draw people in and find the strength that all their own individualistic, fiery, sharp, brilliant, sometimes even mannered colleagues on the court head; he just distilled and got the best out of us and produced that terrific mix that became the [...], that created the cement, if you like, of the constitutional jurisprudence. I have nothing but respect for Arthur Chaskalson.
Thank you very much. I would like to close off with going back to the point you made earlier; there was a very interesting point about the notion of being a Jew but not necessarily a good Jew and sort of bringing in the issue of secularity; you are closer now to the end of your story than the beginning, does the closeness to the end not place doubts on one’s secularity?
People say that when your years are passed and you become aware of your mortality you tend to retreat to your earlier sets of beliefs and if that’s the case then I retreat to my total intense complete secularism. But it wasn’t secularism in a form of an aggression and hatred and denial of beliefs of others; it was just that we find our moral faith and our moral centre in terms of an intense set of beliefs that motivate our conduct in life. I remember so vividly – I must have been about 8, crossing the street with my mother, and then we got to the other side and I said “Mummy if we don’t believe in God what do we believe in?” and she said “We believe in doing good and being good”; I was l totally satisfied with that answer; then I am satisfied with that answer today. I think the changed that’s come in my life is that I am far more tolerant and accepting of the beliefs that others have, not simply as their right to have their belief but as the meaning of their beliefs to them as human beings, if they get their dignity that somehow believing in a supernatural order that I don’t share in that belief doesn’t diminish them to me, it’s just the way they are. I have got an agreement with Vanessa my wife, she believes in afterlife, I don’t, but the agreement between us is I am up there and she’s down here, she is allowed to say to me at first words “I told you so, Albie”. I wouldn’t have even made that joke when I was young.
You’re less rigid, less rigorous?
It’s not [...], I suppose, I am more open to pluralism generally, to diversity, to [...] I remember coming up with this notion of these Cold Knowledge and Warm Knowledge; and Cold Knowledge is scientific knowledge, it’s objective, it’s impersonal, it’s dispassionate, it’s the truth; and maybe at one stage I would see all warm knowledge as obscurantist and as unprovable, unproven belief systems and so on. And now I can see that warm knowledge is very meaningful to many people; warm knowledge inputs [..], compresses history and compresses experience and uses parable and indirect ways of embracing truths and memories and expectations and hopes in a way that cold knowledge doesn’t do, and the world need both of them and in that sense; I am much more open and I might be wrong. I used to console myself as a child – it was very tough being a non believer in a believing environment – but I felt that to pretend a belief I didn’t have would be disrespectful to myself and to God – if God exists – if I didn’t believe in God and to pray to God that I didn’t believe in. You know, it was quite tough for an 11 – 12 year old kid. But I remember saying to myself “God if you do exist, I am not a bad person, I wouldn’t behave in any different way whether you exist of not, if I do good things, it’s not because I want to go to heaven or get some kind of reward, because this is the way I see the world, this is who I want to be”. So, in that sense already at early age it was immaterial whether God existed or not, just in my case I didn’t see the capital “G” kind of person or spirit or essence of being out there that somehow would be responsible or intervene in our faith; we had to take responsibility, for our own faith, our own choices, our own dilemmas and retrieve our own joy in our own way.
May I distil from that the ideal that you always operated from your own conscience?
I think that’s being the inner core of myself since then. Even when I was in prison, at one stage in such a confinement I had had body experiences which were very vivid; very, very kind of strong and rather weird; it never shook my basic belief that I am a body than this person who’s speaking to you know, when I am dead I am gone, if I live on it’s through children and books I have written, constitutional court building, judgements I have written, things that I have said, interviews I have given in all sorts of obvious ways and often in settle ways, gone! [...], and I haven’t changed from that; but what was very important for me was becoming part of a broad movement and movement that transcended, just me, my family, cultural grouping, certainly the whiteness of my skin, my belonging to privileged section of white South Africa, my being simply a South African. And in that sense it’s me inside embracing all these other things, and the me inside becoming stronger and richer because it’s opening up, it’s less suspicious it’s more giving, it’s more embracing than it would have been just me inside on its own as purely inward looking, also strict, self-referential being.
If we can understand the notion of an individual’s conscience, is there such a thing as a Jewish conscience?
I can see [...] I wouldn’t see my conscience as a Jewish conscience, but I would see it as a conscience that has a certain element of Jewish input that maybe quite an important one. But I don’t frame my decisions in life in terms of references, express references to Judaism, to biblical texts or writings of great Jewish Rabbis or commentators, certainly not to the pronouncements of particular Jewish leaders or people speaking of a Jewish state; but I can’t speak for other people I know people like Denis Davies, who went to the Otsleo, he frequently expresses views very similar to mine and he will frame them as a Jew, as a good Jew, that’s the way he sees things. In terms of a good Jew- bad Jew, well if I was confused before, I even more confused after Cyril Harris, the chief Rabbi of South Africa said “Joe Slovo was a good Jew”, it means a bad Jew, a very bad Jew, he didn’t have a mezuzah he didn’t give to charities, he didn’t go to Shul, I believe these were the 3 (three) little linchpins of being a good Jew in London when entry to a Jewish school was being discussed in the supreme court there. But Rabbi Harris said he was an intensely good Jew because of the ethical quality, he happened to be a Jew and the Jewishness is not something he despised or shed or repudiated, I think Joe took it with him to his grave [...]
I think Joe took it with him to his grave but he wasn’t buried at the Jewish cemetery, there’s no Magen David on his tombstone, there’s no Hebrew lettering there, there’s nothing at all to stamp his final resting place, a place where a Jew is buried. But if idealism as the vision of emancipated humanity owed anything to the prophets and to the vision of an emancipated world then he would have taken that with him to his dying day. If he had a sense of humour, that somehow it’s a humour, it’s an irony, it’s not just being able to tell a joke, it’s ripe way of seeing the world, that it’s no accident, it’s very strong in Jewish culture, and a Jewish tradition, maybe counterpoised to the heavy dogmatism of so much of Talmudic kind of reasoning, Joe would have had that I think more towards the end. So, it all depends on what one means by a good Jew. If Joe was a good Jew then I am good Jew, if Joe was a bad Jew then I am a bad Jew; and Joe and I were very different in many, many ways, but I think it’s these elements that we certainly had in common. I remember at school, I was at Sachs boarding school for quite a long time; and about half the kids they were Jews, many of them children of Jews who owned a shop or hotel or something in little doorpies and they would send their boys to Sachs school in Cape Town and a frommer would come along and would lay down the law: “you can’t have milk and meat together for 2 hours” so for a week or so we would all be looking at our watches and then you kind of forget it and the a few month later another one would come along, and that would be an 1½ hour; but what surprised me was that often the boys who were the most frommed in terms of these details they would steal, they would lie, they would be mean, there wasn’t a direct connection between observance and the moral qualities; I wouldn’t say there was an inverse one, I wouldn’t say the more frommed they were the more disrespectful they were to others, they was just no connection at all, they seemed to belong to different orders of the world of behaviour of values. And it’s given me a disrespect for formal overt science of proving your religiosity – that’s detached from actual meaning, although I have learnt, this has come very, very late to respect some people whom I like very, very much, who are very observant, they don’t use motorcars and electricity on a Sabbath, and at first I thought this was very weird but I can see it’s kind of mental space acquired a sabbatharianism in their lives, a form of identification, that’s all the more important because it doesn’t signify anything other than itself, I respect that. So, I have had to grow a little bit to become more embracing, more encompassing, to acknowledge, the intensity and meaning of what might appear to be absurd rituals for people who follow them, but please don’t try to impose them on me; that touches on something very deep in me I feel offended, I feel respected, if people try and create a compulsory potential faith that I don’t have, and yet I will wear a yarmulke, I go to Shul if I am [...] I love going to Osheshwana dinners places of dinners, I go along; I am only terrified that they will pass the Haggadah and it will come to the plagues, it’s one thing for sure I will never pronounce the plagues and certainly not the smacking of the first born; it was a near missed once, and luckily I was given the passage which was just before that to read, and then I would just throw the book down, that would be too much of the range for me. So, I owe respect for the home that I am visiting, the people, their beliefs, I will certainly conform, but I want pretend the belief that I don’t have myself.
Just wanted to mention that the Baal Shem Tov himself, the man who formed the Hassidim, said there’s actually only one rule of Judaism and that is to love God love, and love of God is the single fundament upon which all the other rules are based, love is the fundament of the Jew.
Well you see, I could follow that but I would give it a different philosophical framework but it’s intensely the same, yeah. Love of God would mean loving of the beauty and the good and the possibilities, ineffable qualities of the world and so on.
Has struggle been a manifestation of love for you in your life?
Struggle has been part of expressing love, expressing highest qualities, but also knowing fear and terror, it’s been a testing ground, often a very tough testing ground in many different ways, but for me it’s been ennobling and enriching overall, it’s been diminishing in some ways, a kind of relation that we developed that gave us courage, it gave us conviction and strength; even back now I can see we weren’t critical about that, we should have been critical of; they had been disappointments in individuals, in movements, philosophies and so on, but overall it’s been very affirmative, very positive and very enriching for me. For me as a white person being in lash with black movement, it all pick it out of my skin to move, to sing in public to loosen up, to lighten up to dance, and that’s an immediate sense; but also to be more tolerant to be more sensitive to be more open and that’s where people like Olliver Tambo had a huge influence on me and many, many others; it’s kind of Ubuntu in practice embodied in individuals, in people; that’s been very, very strong for me. And when I read a book like “Disgrace”, my disagreement with J. M. Coetzee – he’s a brilliant, brilliant writer – is that he doesn’t have that connection with Africa, African culture, African people at an emotional, some luminal level that I have, that I got very much through the struggle, through the tradition of my parents, my mum worked for Moses Katani, I was named Albert after Albert Muzule an African trade union leader, I am sure I picked up a lot being carried on her back, of an African woman who might or who might not have been a comrade but just hearing the music and sort of seeping to me. And all of that is somehow connected with a world of ideals, of vision of humanity but also a world of fun, of music, of movements, of possibilities that fitted into immense petri-notions of the revolution of transformation, of change, sharing risks, made it meaningful and the connection was very, very meaningful; and with it disappointments and setbacks and terror and raid and sleeplessness – it wasn’t all just beautiful you know, along the way – but overwhelmingly positive.
It might or might not be pure coincidence, but after I was blow up and I am in total darkness, and I don’t know what’s going on and I heard a voice saying “Albie we are in Maputo central hospital, your arm is in lamentable condition, you have to face the future with courage”, and I said into the darkness “what happened?” and the woman’s voice said “it was a car bomb”, and I think back that euphoric I know I am safe, I have survived; and then I wake up I still can’t see, I am feeling very light and very happy and I tell myself a joke about “Amy Cohen falls a bus” – it’s an old joke – “and gets up and he does this and someone says: Amy, I didn’t know you catholic”, “what do you mean catholic? Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch” and I started with testicles all in order, wallet okay, head is ok and my arms fit down and I realised that I had only lost an arm, and I felt joyous because that moment the freedom fighters waiting for, will they come for me? They came for me and I survived, that was fantastic. Well, maybe it’s an accident, I tell most of the Jewish joke at that moment maybe that is part of the culture that help people survive, that helped me survive in that particular moment.
So, the Jewish joke is a survival mechanism against the pogroms against these atrocities that people in the Diaspora have faced?
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The theme of humour, many oppressed communities use humour to fight off the power of the dominant group, sometimes humour at themselves, it enables them to survive, to manage; so why take on the world? it certainly helped me at that particular moment. I joke, therefore I am; to me humour, there were lots of jokes told by Joe Slovo and about Joe Slovo that entertained all of us and kept up our sense of comradeship during the struggle. Myself, I remember thinking the person who organised the bomb in my car, must have been anti-Semite because we Jews we need 2 arms to tell the story, I don’t tell that joke very often, though willing to say it now.