March 17, 2009
Art and Justice
“Give what you have to give and receive what has been given honestly and generously.” – Justice Albie Sachs, Constitutional Court of South Africa
So rare is real humility that until a few weeks ago, I’d almost forgotten what it looks like. It looks like Justice Albie Sachs, who sees more of the world from his one good eye than most of us do with two. Exiled from South Africa in 1966, targeted as a “race traitor” by the former apartheid regime, and nearly assassinated by a car bomb planted by South African agents, the Johannesburg-born Sachs sacrificed an eye, an arm and so much more to the fight against apartheid and for justice in his home land.
Long a behind-the-scenes orchestrator for change, Sachs has stepped forth quietly and surely when needed.. When Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected President of South Africa in 1994, Sachs played an integral role in negotiations for the new constitution and the language of its revolutionary Bill of Rights. And, in many ways, he has become the gentle but firm “face” of the new South African government.
Now one of the most powerful voices on human rights, equality, dignity and freedom, Justice Albie Sachs is the original architect of the new constitution of South Africa. Two weeks ago, I was among a few hundred privileged guests of Chief Justice Ronald George, and Barbara George when Justice Sachs spoke in the, “Purpose of Justice,” series underwritten by Ralph and Shirley Shapiro of Los Angeles. That night Sachs spoke openly about apartheid, redefining systems of justice, and the inspiring role art and architecture have played in creating South Africa’s new Constitutional Court building.
Justice Sachs also gave us a preview of his new film, Light on a Hill, which has been submitted to the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. In it, Sachs takes viewers on an intimate and moving tour of the new Constitutional Court building, the most important physical structure in post-Apartheid South Africa. Built on the site of the Old Fort Prison in Johannesburg (once the “cage” for Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela), the new Constitutional Court now houses a diverse, light-filled art collection that simultaneously memorializes South Africa’s history and offers a rainbow colored vision for the country’s future.
To view this film is to walk alongside Justice Sachs through a building that is literally and symbolically filled with light – and with hope. Certainly everyone left the lecture hall that night with a buoyed spirit. And I was reminded…that the power of positive energy burns like a laser through grim surroundings. It’s a great message for all Americans, and for the world, at this present time and in this seemingly light-less economy. We should all be so fortunate as to have something to burn for so brightly. And so selflessly.
Although Light on a Hill has not yet been released to the public, you can find equally vibrant inspiration in Sachs’ books. I have already decided to pick up one of his autobriographies, The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, re-issued by the University of California Press. His most recent book, Art and Justice: The Art of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, is a full-color showcase of the complexly beautiful artworks and interior design that make up “the most important building in post-Apartheid South Africa.”
** Justice Sachs was unofficially traveling with Facing History and Ourselves, an international educational and development organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, genocide and antisemitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. If you’d like to learn more about this dynamic organization, please go to www.facinghistory.org. More than 1,400 educators and an estimated 150,000 students in the Bay Area have benefited from Facing History’s programs, and their reach is expanding. In partnership with the Cape Town Holocaust Centre and the Western Cape Department of Education, Facing History has created a project called Facing the Past, a 9th grade curriculum focusing on the Holocaust and apartheid, which is taught in 25 schools in the Cape Town province.