Award-winning show on KQED studies a little-known hero in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
We know so much about apartheid, the brutal South African policy of racial “separateness” that was imposed by the white Afrikaan minority in 1948 and came to an end in 1994 only after the loss of thousands of lives. And yet we only know a few of the heroes in the story of apartheid’s end — Nelson Mandela, of course, Steven Biko, perhaps Walter Sisulu.
But there were many heroes, including Albie Sachs, the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants and the subject of the Peabody Award-winning documentary “Albie Sachs and the New South Africa.”
The title of the film, airing on KQED on Saturday, July 2, is taken from the still-living Sachs’ own words. He is asked in archival footage if he doesn’t want to take revenge on those who planted the car bomb that almost killed him, costing him
an arm and his sight in one eye. With the kind of wisdom that made Sachs such an important part of the antiapartheid movement, he answers that he only wants to seek “soft vengeance” — forcing his would-be killer to live in a free South Africa. He incorporated the phrase into his memoir, “The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter.”
And, make no mistake, Sachs was always a freedom fighter, and he still is today. His father, Soli, was a trade unionist and social activist in South Africa. As a young lawyer, Albie Sachs defended a woman named Stephanie Kemp, who was charged with opposing apartheid. Both were imprisoned, but on their release, they began a relationship, married and moved into self-imposed “exile” in London.
Sachs lived in London for several years. After his first marriage broke up, Sachs left London for Mozambique, which is where he was nearly killed by the car bomb. His life was saved because his would-be killer placed the bomb on the wrong side of the car.
Sachs was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court of South Africa by Mandela himself in 1994. Although apartheid had ended, the nation itself needed to be reborn, in a way.
The key to the new South Africa was establishing a body of laws that would guarantee equality and freedom and provide economic opportunities for those living in the shacks on the outskirts of Johannesburg and other cities. The new constitution was just a beginning, and Sachs was a key player in creating and adjudicating laws that would accurately reflect that constitution.
He was also the author of the court ruling striking down the statute defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Directed by Abby Ginzberg (“Soul of Justice: Thelton Henderson’s American Journey”), who co-produced the film with Ken Schneider, “Soft Vengeance” packs a lot into its one-hour running time. We get not only a personalized history of the antiapartheid movement but also a provocative and compelling portrait of a passionate, complex hero.
Sachs’ career is not without controversy. While being interviewed for his court appointment, he was criticized for signing an African National Congress report on its treatment of a highranking officer in the ANC’s military wing. The incident would not have diminished the convincing portrait of heroic commitment Ginzburg paints.
History has a strange way of sanding away the edges of its heroes, elevating them so much that we forget they were complicated men and women. By reminding us that one of those heroes is, in fact, very human, “Soft Vengeance” gives us even more reason to be grateful for Albie Sachs’ drive and sacrifice in ending apartheid.
Antiapartheid activist Albie Sachs is the subject of the film “Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa.”
As a Constitutional Court judge, Albie Sachs (center back) helped shaped a postapartheid South Africa that tries to provide opportunities for all.