Soft Vengeance: An Interview with South Africa’s Albie Sachs


South African judge and human rights activist Albie Sachs is among the foremost transitional justice experts to have emerged from the anti-apartheid struggle and subsequent transition.

In this April 17, 2013 interview with ICTJ Vice President Paul Seils, Sachs discusses the difficult balance of retribution and reconciliation, offers his thoughts on how different forms of repression can shape transitional justice mechanisms and the possible lessons from the South African experience for other societies facing similar questions of truth and justice.

Sachs began his lifetime of dedicated activism as a young law student at the University of Cape Town, where he joined the anti-apartheid struggle and acted as an attorney defending those charged under racist statutes and repressive security laws.

In 1988, after living in exile for 22 years, a car bomb planted by South African agents cost him an arm and his sight in one eye. Sachs describes the healing experience as a transformative time, where he didn’t desire harsh criminal punishment for the perpetrators of the attack. More important, he explains, was South Africa’s transition to democracy and to the rule of law. “I knew that would be my soft vengeance,” he says.

After democratic elections in 1994, President Nelson Mandela appointed Sachs to serve as a Justice on South Africa’s newly establish Constitutional Court, where he went on to write the landmark unanimous decision to legalize same-sex marriage.

He has continued to be a vanguard for gender justice and equality, and considers the active participation of women in South Africa’s transition to have been critical. “There are themes in the constitution that just wouldn’t have been there if women hadn’t been direct participants,” he says.

More recently, Sachs was appointed as a member of the Judges and Magistrate Vetting Board in Kenya, established by the new Constitution of Kenya. Explaining the process to strengthen the independence of the judiciary, he reflected that some judges had “twisted the law to protect those in power to grant impunity. We had to find out who they were.”

Sachs continues to be a vanguard for peace, justice, and reconciliation. His book, The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter gives a personal narrative of his extraordinary life.

Transcript of the full interview is available here.

PHOTO: Albie Sachs speaks with ICTJ staff in New York, April 17, 2013. Hannah Dunphy/ICTJ