Monday, August 11, 2014

Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs' journey from South African freedom fighter to Constitutional Court Justice

I arrived at Oakland's Grand Lake Theater on Sunday just in time to buy one of the few remaining tickets to East Bay filmmaker Abby Ginzberg's biographical documentary, Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa. The film is currently on the festival circuit (it premiered in South Africa earlier this year), and played in Oakland on the last day of the Jewish Film Festival. The documentary's theatrical release is set for 18 September. Don't miss it.

From the synopsis on the film's web site:
SOFT VENGEANCE is a film about Albie Sachs, a lawyer, writer, art lover and freedom fighter, set against the dramatic events leading to the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa. [...] As a young man, Albie defended those committed to ending apartheid in South Africa. For his actions as a lawyer, he was imprisoned in solitary confinement in Cape Town, tortured through sleep deprivation and forced into exile. In 1988 he was blown up by a car bomb set by the South African security forces in Maputo, Mozambique, which cost him his right arm and the sight of one eye, but miraculously he survived and after a long year of rehabilitation in England, he recovered.  Returning to South Africa following the release of Nelson Mandela, Albie helped write the new Constitution and was then appointed as one of the first 11 judges to the new Constitutional Court, which for the past 20 years has been insuring that the rights of all South Africans are afforded protection.
There's a great deal that matters in this documentary, but nothing in its 84 minute span is more profound than Sachs meditating on the pursuit of revenge in the aftermath of that car bombing that nearly took his life in Mozambique. Transcribed from the film's trailer (on Vimeo):
Lying in bed, recovering, I receive a note: "Don't worry comrade Albie, we will avenge you." Avenge me? Are we going to chop off the arms, are we going to blind people? Where is that going to get us? But if we get democracy in South Africa, and freedom, that will be my soft vengeance.
Battered, blinded in one eye, his mangled right arm amputated above the elbow, peppered in shrapnel wounds, Sachs marshals heart, mind, and steely will from his hospital bed to set aside reflexive rage that, under the circumstances, might easily have derailed a lesser man. His life, work, and words -- before and after the attempt on his life -- give witness to the truth that humankind is capable of choosing moral principle and compassion over reaction and revenge. And Sachs' lifelong, unyielding opposition to South Africa's now-vanquished Nationalists makes clear that his is a hero's choice. He speaks humbly, with a soft lilt. Don't be fooled.

I happened to read a profoundly moving new novel last week, a book written by Irish theater director -- and now debut novelist -- Darragh McKeon. All That Is Solid Melts into Air was given a well-deserved, admiring appraisal in this week's NY Times Book Review. Its story orbits the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown of 1986, treating the catastrophic event and its savage consequences -- aggravated by the fecklessness of a politically and morally moribund U.S.S.R. -- through the eyes of protagonists whose humanity and courage defy the crushing stupidity and venality that passed for leadership in the Soviet bureaucracy.

It is a novel of intense and unredeemable loss. The author's devastating essay, The Empty City, included at the end of the U.S. edition, describes a wasteland of burned-into-the-genome deformation and disease that is and surrounds Chernobyl today, and will remain Chernobyl for centuries to come. In the novel [spoiler alert here], the best, steadiest, and most selfless character, a surgeon who spends himself utterly to save and comfort a deluge of victims of radiation poisoning, finally falls prey to Chernobyl's fallout.

I have to confess, this sort of end to the life of a good and selfless character, one who struggles against all odds to heal the world, strikes a fictional note that rings true to me. I tend to look askance at happy outcomes in literature.

But Albie Sachs is not a fictional character.

And he did not die.

In fact, I had the great honor of meeting Justice Sachs in April here in Berkeley: he had come to participate in a UC Berkeley symposium honoring Nelson Mandela, The Hard Work of Reconciliation, organized by Professor of Anthropology and intrepid social justice activist Nancy Scheper-Hughes. (See selfie posted at left, taken by my friend and anti-apartheid movement comrade Jonathan Winters ... it's blurry, yes, but serves its evidentiary purpose nonetheless.) Sachs has retired from South Africa's Constitutional Court, but his work is not done.

The mission, message, and example Albie Sachs gives us is not fictional at all. It's not a metaphor. It's not an allegory. Sachs' honest, human-scaled, and all too rare victory in the endless struggle for justice makes his story an inspiration and a tonic for all those who quail -- and who would not quail? -- at the risks to life, limb, livelihood, and relationships that commitment to winning justice entails.

At the end of his preface to the latest edition of The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, Sachs wrote, in January of this year:
We have huge problems in South Africa, many inherited and many of our own making. The gap between rich and poor is completely untenable. Continuing struggles and new endeavors to create a better life for all take place. Yet they do so in a country where the principles of constitutional democracy have deep roots. This is the soft vengeance I dreamed of in my hospital bed after the bomb.

Seriously. You need to see this film.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
UC Berkeley's anti-apartheid movement: setting the record straight
Nelson Mandela and the death of UC Berkeley's Eshleman Hall
Fukushima Daiichi: a nuclear power disaster that keeps on giving
Nuclear meltdown abroad and at home
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind