The “soft vengeance” of Albie Sachs

Brandeis Events, Brandeis University, International Justice, Law and Justice No Comments »


Abby Ginzberg has made a terrific new film, “Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa.” It brings to life one of the great human rights heroes of our time, a Jewish South African who joined the African National Congress, became one of the principal crafters of the South African constitution, and then a member of democratic South Africa’s constitutional court. Sachs spent two long stints in solitary confinement in apartheid-era prisons, and he later lost his right arm and the sight in one eye as the result of a bomb blast in Mozambique in 1988, but his commitment to justice and his zest for life emerged intact from those searing experiences.

For Albie Sachs, the “soft vengeance” for the bomb blast was the triumph of justice and democracy in South Africa. Ginzberg’s film works splendidly on three levels. It is first a story of an special, vital individual whose open personality, sense of humor, and burning passion are contagious. Secondly, it’s a national story, reminding its viewers of the tremendous odds that South Africans working for democracy faced, and of the great triumph of their collective struggle.

Finally, “Soft Vengeance” is a story about what Sachs called in our discussion the “emancipatory” potential of the law. Sachs had grown up thinking of the law as an instrument to protect property and the interests of the powerful. As a lawyer in an activist movement, he came to understand how law can be used creatively in the service of freedom. Not only did he go on to play a part in the new constitution for South Africa, but as a member of the Constitutional Court he penned some ringing human rights judgments, including the decision that legalized gay marriage, the first African nation to do so. Abby Ginzberg was also trained as a lawyer before she started directing films 30 years ago, so she brings a special passion for the subject of “emancipatory” justice to each of her projects.

We were fortunate to have Albie Sachs and Abby Ginzberg with us at Brandeis University last week for a special advance screening of “Soft Vengeance,” the first on a college campus.  We at the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life were pleased to be joined by the National Center for Jewish Film and the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice in presenting the event.

After the screening, Sachs and Ginzberg talked together about the making of the film, and the tug-of-war between them about how certain aspects of his life would be portrayed. “It may be your life,” Ginzberg had to remind Sachs from time to time, “but it’s my film.”

The screening took place on September 11, and perhaps there was something appropriate in this. Albie Sachs has had a special ability to transform personal suffering into a force for social good. He spoke eloquently about how, in the aftermath of the bombing, he had an ebullient feeling: “They came for me . . but I am still here!”  Human rights activists around the world are his comrades, Sachs told the audience, but they can be so dour. Why not, he suggested, seek both joy and the struggle? Hearing from Albie Sachs on September 11 was an opportunity for all Americans in the audience to think about the extent that we have or have not used the events of 13 years ago as a motivation for positive, productive change.


L to R: Lisa Rivo, Sharon Rivo, Jules Bernstein, Abby Ginzberg, Albie Sachs, Dan Terris

The last clarion call of Anthony Lewis

Brandeis Events, Law and Justice 1 Comment »

Anthony Lewis, who passed away this week, has been rightly lionized for his fierce commitment to justice and freedom, and for his passion for the United States Constitution as a vital and living document.

Anthony Lewis and Bill Leahy at the Brandeis University, March 18 2013

Anthony Lewis and Bill Leahy at Brandeis University, March 18, 2013

Yet what made him such a great writer and observer of law and politics was his keen understanding of the contingencies of the human condition.  Law for Tony Lewis was neither a distant abstraction nor an impersonal scripture carved in granite.  It was always embodied in individual men and women, where passion and reason and circumstance are inevitably intertwined.

So perhaps it is no surprise that the last words of the last public appearance of this extraordinary man reflect his wry sense of the human.

As it happens, that appearance came at an event that we hosted at Brandeis University on March 18 2013, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.

Before Gideon, if you were charged with a felony in many states in the U.S. and you could not afford a lawyer, you were out of luck.  You represented yourself, cross-examined witnesses, and matched wits with a professional prosecutor as best you could.   In the Gideon judgment, the Supreme Court reversed its own previous jurisprudence and ordered states to provide an attorney in those situations.

Tony Lewis’s account of that case, Gideon’s Trumpet, has become one of the classics of American non-fiction.  At the Brandeis event, Lewis spoke about his passion for the case, which originated with a handwritten petition sent to the United States Supreme Court by an inmate in a Florida prison.    And he dwelled on the characters of the key protagonists:  Justice Hugo Black, who wrote the unanimous opinion,  Abe Fortas, who argued for the plaintiff at the Supreme Court, and Clarence Earl Gideon himself.

The Gideon case enshrined a legal right, but its implementation 50 years later has been far from perfect.  This was the conclusion of the discussion between Lewis and the other panelists: Bill Leahy, who has led statewide public defender offices in Massachusetts and New York; Margot Botsford, a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and Fred Lawrence, the president of Brandeis University and himself a former federal prosecutor.   Underfunded public defenders offices and mandatory sentencing laws, among other factors, have undermined the right to counsel for poor defendants, many of them African American.

Nevertheless, in his closing comments, Tony Lewis reverted to what he called the “romantic nature” of Gideon.  His thoughts on the fortuitous aspects of the case, his continuing call for action, and a humorous anecdote, perfectly capture his wise, idealistic, and authentic spirit.

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