LEWISTON — Overheard Thursday night at Bates College where South African human rights activist Justice Albert Sachs was about to speak:

“This man is amazing,” one young woman said to another. “Everything he says is brilliant.”

Apparently others thought so, as well. Before Sachs got anywhere near the podium, the Edmund S. Muskie Archives building was packed full. More than full, actually — all of the chairs were full so people sat on tables, leaned against walls or staked claim to space on the floor.

More chairs were produced and within seconds, those were full, too.

“It’s fabulous,” said Bates President Clayton Spencer, “to see this room filled to the rafters.”

Up to the podium stepped Justice Sachs, a man whom Rep. Peggy Rotundo called “a human rights giant,” and one whose biography is as harrowing as it is heroic.

An African National Congress activist during the apartheid years in South Africa, Sachs went on to play an important role in the creation of the country’s first democratic constitution. He gained international attention again in 2005 as the author of the Constitutional Court’s holding that overturned South Africa’s ban on gay marriage.

In 1955, at the age of 21, Sachs opened a law practice. He represented South Africans charged under racial statutes and security laws, with many of his clients risking the death penalty. As a result of this work, his practice was restricted, and he was arrested and put in solitary confinement for 168 days without a trial.

Sachs went to England in 1966, later moving to Mozambique to teach law. In 1988, while he was teaching in exile, South African agents planted a bomb in his car. The explosion killed a passer-by and cost Sachs an arm and the vision in one eye.

Though he never quit working against apartheid in exile, the bombing moved him to fully devote himself once again to effecting democracy in South Africa.

With regime change achieved in 1990, Sachs served on the Constitutional Committee and advocated strongly for the inclusion of a Bill of Rights and an independent judiciary, as well as rights to housing, health care and other essentials. In 1994, after the first democratic election, President Nelson Mandela appointed Sachs as a justice in the Constitutional Court.

Sachs led the creation of the 1996 South African post-apartheid constitution and was involved in several landmark rulings for the new country, such as the overturning of the gay marriage ban.

At Bates Thursday night, Sachs spoke passionately of the fight for human rights in South Africa. He did so through a series of stories, several of which involved his own tears.

Sachs had been known to cry with joy and relief when new laws brought relief to people who suffered from poverty or disease, or both. He cried, for example, when the court abolished the death penalty and overturned laws criminalizing homosexuality.

In 2002, when the court ordered the government to provide medicine for those who suffered from HIV, a colleague offered him a handkerchief, Sachs said.

“I cried again and for the same reason,” he told the group at Bates. “I was just overwhelmed to be a part of that.”

He told a story of a woman with three children who had to flee her home during the rainy season. There was no housing available to her, Sachs said, or to the millions like her. That woman and her children were forced to live outdoors because the people who needed the government’s help the most had no access to it.

“No provision was made,” he told the rapt audience, “for people way down the line, people living in total desperation.”

He told of being part of the court that had to decide in a case that pitted wealthy landowners against poor families who had set up shacks on unoccupied land. By law, those families were not allowed to be there, he said. But simply forcing them out caused what Sachs referred to as “intellectual contradiction” and he found it difficult to rule in the case, in spite of the fact that he was a justice and the law was clear.

“The other Albie, the Albie that’s talking to you now said, ‘I can’t do it,'” Sachs said. “‘I can’t sign that judgement.'”

Those stories and others were used to illustrate the doctrine of Ubuntu, which translated roughly means “human kindness.” In the case involving the landowners and squatters, Sachs and his court set up a process of mediation, with each side getting together to speak with the other “eyeball to eyeball.” It was a process based on “reasonableness,” of which Sachs frequently spoke.

“We are bound together,” he said. “No man is an island unto himself.”

Sachs spoke softly at times, and roughly 100 students and others in the audience could be seen leaning forward to hear him. He told of other court decisions and sweeping changes within the government that caused him to burst into tears. He spoke of his own accomplishments while warning of the extensive work that still needs to be done.

“I think the world is crying out for more Ubuntu,” he said.

A standing ovation followed.

Sachs has written several books, including “The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs,” published during his time in exile in England but banned in his home country. In 1991, Sachs won the Alan Paton Award for his book, “Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter.” His most recent title is “The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law,” published in 2009.


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