Doc­u­men­tary:

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - DAVID WIE­GAND

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.

Larsen As­so­ciates

An­ti­a­partheid ac­tivist Al­bie Sachs is the sub­ject of the film “Soft Vengeance: Al­bie Sachs and the New South Africa.”

As­so­ci­ated Press 2005

As a Con­sti­tu­tional Court judge, Al­bie Sachs (cen­ter back) helped shaped a postapartheid South Africa that tries to pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for all.

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