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Radicals and money


Retired South African Constitutional Court Judge Dr. Albie Sachs (born 30 January 1935 was being interviewed on radio programme about his attitude to money. Albie Sachs is a white South African lawyer (qualified at age 19) who fought the apartheid government from the minute he matriculated at the University of Cape Town. Law student during the day and freedom fighter at night in the Black townships of Cape Town, dwelling places that would not qualify as Cape Town beautiful.

From the moment he began to practise as a lawyer Albie Sachs worked, without pay, defending Africans accused of breaking various bad apartheid laws. He took over the chambers of a fellow freedom fighter who had deliberately under-furnished his chambers knowing that one day he would be arrested by the apartheid authorities. Needless to say, Albie Sachs kept the chamber as he met it. He too was sure the apartheid thugs would also come for him.

When they did, he was detained without trial in a solitary cell for six months. As he said about that experience, “each day was like five years!”After he was released he went to Britain where he did a doctorate degree at Sussex University. From there he went to Mozambique where he taught at the university. It was here that the apartheid government of South Africa caramel for Albie. A bomb was planted in his car. He did not die when the bomb went off. He lost his right arm and his left eye. In rehabilitation, he learnt to write with his left hand.

Albie Sachs’ parents were both communists. His mother imprinted on his mind that everybody must pay their quota to public utilities. Albie had returned home with his penny bus ride price still triumphantly in his hand. The bus conductor was upstairs and had not appeared to collect the bus fare when Albie reached his destination. “Well,” said Albie’s Mother, “you go upstairs and pay your fare to the bus conductor. That’s what you do!”

Whites who opposed apartheid were considered as traitors to the white race. They were pursued with relentless fury. Albie Sachs was at Kliptown in 1955 where the Freedom Charter was signed. Over the years this document has led the way to the much admired South African constitution.

We got to know Albie because his wife and our daughter were in the same class at the Cape Town University School of Architecture.It is a joy to be with Albie Sachs. He is a brilliant lawyer in the cause of the oppressed and a self-disciplined Constitutional lawyer. He passed through a period of doubt and cynicism about the possibility of the rule of law working for the oppressed. But he recovered.

One late morning, we met on the Gautrain going to O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. He was returning to Cape Town while I was going to Lagos. After the pleasantries I asked about the problem of senior lawyers (SAN in Nigeria, SC in South Africa) defending politicians accused of corruption. He was of course familiar with the tactics of such defence: claim of human rights abuse, postponement of court hearing, innocent until proved guilt (which will never be done because the case will not be decided ever, etc, etc). He had spent some time in Zambia advising the judiciary there how to handle such cases. Little did he know that his advice would be much needed at home in South Africa. I promised to arrange for the Commissioner for Justice in Ondo State to invite him to give a lecture in Akure. Unfortunately nothing came out of this promise.

What was his attitude to money, the interviewer asked Albie Sachs. He gave an answer that helped me to understand the dilemma of radicals in Nigeria. At the launching of Just Before Dawn I issued a notice for all attending to the effect that people were not allowed to buy single copies for huge amounts of money. Multiple copies can be bought and distributed to school and university libraries. The publisher was furious and the chairman of the occasion said that it was because I did not like money. Of course I protested that it had nothing to do with not liking money.

I know colleagues in those years and since who provided scholarships and financial support to people around them. Another occasion had to do with the not liking money accusation. The university used to give loans for senior university staff to build their personal houses and move out of university housing for incoming young academics. Rather than do this once the houses were built, the senior academics would rent their houses to the university for commercial rents while paying heavily subsidised rents to the university in university owned houses. Some of us protested against this hypocrisy among people too eager to criticize corruption among politicians and civil servants.

At a subsequent meeting of the staff union, we were accused of not liking money. One day, out of the blue, Albie Sachs received a notification that he had won $1 million dollars prize for his work on the rule of law. His reactions? First of all he thought it could not be true. Second thought was that if it was true he would reject the prize. But there was a third reaction. He consulted with his wife. He spoke to her about how that kind of money “destabilized” him. Synonyms of destabilize include: undermine, weaken, impair, damage, subvert, sabotage, unsettle, upset, disrupt, wreck, ruin. Such an amount of money in the hands of someone who had always made do would make such a person lose control of their lives. What does it mean to lose control of one’s life?

Nigerian radicals are also famous for insisting that property is theft. There is the saying in Yoruba that: “Isalẹ ọrọ l’ẹgbin,” meaning the “depth of wealth has dirt.” Accumulation does not emanate from a win-win situation but from a situation of winner takes all.The third reaction of Albie Sachs was to accept the prize, give half of it to charity and pay his mortgage with what was left. With such sharing, Albie Sachs retained control of his life writing his beautiful books, especially those that link art and law such as The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law. Published in 2009.

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