TANG PRIZE/Tang laureate Albie Sachs shares honor with all freedom fighters

06/21/2014 11:00 PM
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Cape Town, South Africa, June 21 (CNA) Albie Sachs, the winner of the first Tang Prize in Rule of Law, feels the award is a recognition of not just himself, but of all who have fought against apartheid in pursuit of justice in South Africa.

The 79-year-old former justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, who won the award Saturday, said that many who joined the decades of anti-apartheid movement often did so at the expense of their own freedom.

Some were exiled and others were jailed, Sachs said, naming the late Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo as examples.

"In a sense, the prize is for all of us," Sachs told CNA at his home in Cape Town, South Africa.

"I don't feel very humble, I feel very proud, proud to belong to a generation of South Africans and a generation of lawyers who fought for freedom," he said.

After gaining his law degree at 21, Sachs defended people charged under repressive apartheid laws and, as a result, endured several instances of imprisonment and torture himself.

He went into exile in 1966, returning only in 1990 to South Africa, where he played a key role in drafting the nation's new Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The lawyer, human rights activist, and lifelong opponent of apartheid was appointed by then-President Mandela in 1994 to serve as a justice of the Constitutional Court, a position he held until 2009.

During Sachs' tenure as a judge, the Constitutional Court abolished the death penalty, overturned anti-homosexuality laws and legalized same-sex marriage.

Sachs said he became a lawyer because he felt intuitively that it would enable him to fight for justice.

"So I wasn't a lawyer who became a freedom fighter. I already had the dreams of being a freedom fighter and law was a way in which to do that."

Under the rule of law, everyone should have equal rights, he said.

"Everybody counts. You might be rich and powerful, or you might be poor and have no money in your pocket, but you are still a human being."

But Sachs did not always see law in a positive light.

During the apartheid regime, laws forced people out of their homes and decided who could or could not vote, and whom one could or could not marry according to the color of their skin, Sachs said.

After becoming a justice of the Constitutional Court, Sachs developed a new understanding of law as he worked alongside judges from vastly different backgrounds.

"On the court we were all equal. We were all judges of the new Constitutional Court," he said.

"And it gave me a respect for the possibilities of law that I'd never had before -- law as an instrument not just of control, but as an instrument of emancipation and respect for human dignity."

Despite having paid a huge price for his fight for freedom -- time in prison and the loss of an arm and sight in one eye due to a car bomb -- Sachs said he does not consider any of it to be a sacrifice.

"I never thought I was fighting for the black people. I was fighting for me, our right to live in a free country, for my dignity," he said.

During the long fight against apartheid, Sachs said he and his fellow lawyers and human rights activists often felt weak, exhausted and "very, very, very scared."

"But we never doubted, we never had any doubts about the central idea that one day black and white (people) can live together in South Africa under the law as equals," he said.

He said it has been wonderful to see South Africa's transformation from the "worst country in the world" due to apartheid into a modern-day example for many other countries.

"I think the people choosing me for the prize was really...choosing what South Africa achieved through the law."

(By Doris Hsu and Christie Chen)ENDITEM/WH

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