Heartbeat Of Social Justice

Nowhere in modern history have race relations been more incendiary, and the move toward social justice more palpable, than in South Africa. A man lies on the ground in a mangled, bloodied daze as onlookers come running to his aid: That’s the opening moment of Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa, showing at Doris Duke Theatre’s African American Film Festival, in honor of African American History Month.

The man on the ground is Sachs, the victim of a car bomb planted by his own government to silence Sachs’ very public activism for social equality. A determined lawyer, he also spent stints in solitary confinement and years in exile before returning to his home country when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and came into power. Sachs helped draft the country’s democratic Constitution and was appointed by Mandela as one of 11 members of his newly formed Constitutional Court.

“There is only one bit I cannot look at,” says Sachs of the film, “the scene of my battered body being dragged away from the scene of the bomb that almost took my life.”

A film crew happened to be driving by when the bomb exploded, and a fast-thinking woman among them grabbed a camera and not only filmed the aftermath, but also saved Sachs’ life by taking him to a hospital, ignoring police orders not to move his body.

Sachs lost an arm and vision in one eye in the 1988 explosion, but his cause was only further ignited. He was from a family of the privileged minority, but when he witnessed a crowd in a zestful protest for justice, he soon found himself and three other whites ― a lone foursome alongside 10,000 black people ― participating actively in the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign.

Justice Albie Sachs (far right) of South Africa's Constitutional Court receives the Academy of Achievement's Golden Plate, an award of exceptional accomplishment, from Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Academy's 2009 International Achievement Summit in Cape Town Photo courtesy of Doris Duke Theatre

Justice Albie Sachs (far right) of South Africa’s Constitutional Court receives the Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate, an award of exceptional accomplishment, from Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Academy’s 2009 International Achievement Summit in Cape Town Photo courtesy of Doris Duke Theatre

“(Among other initiatives) we sat on post office benches marked ‘non-whites only,'” says Sachs. “I was a second-year law student, believing that we could use the law as part of a wider struggle for the rights of the oppressed majority.”

For her part, American director Abby Ginzberg was drawn to Sachs’ freedom-fighter story because she herself had been active in the anti-war and civil rights movements at Cornell, the movements’ mecca, in the 1960s. Eager to make as big of a difference in society as possible, she went into law. Film and broadcast journalism weren’t common at the time, but they were 20 years later, and she moved from law into filmmaking.

“There is a connection between law and filmmaking that is about storytelling,” says Ginzberg. “Doing jury trials, you need to come up with a narrative that explains the evidence and hopefully gets your client acquitted. I was drawn to that part of legal practice, and the transition to storytelling on film was almost seamless.”

Today, as an avid documentarian, her backgrounds in law and history (one of her majors in college) inform her work. Her goal is to bring to light the unknown individuals and organizations whose heartbeat is social justice. Ginzberg points out that her work is not about championing the rights of the “other,” or putting any particular individual on a pedestal. At Cornell, she was one of many whites who supported black students in their movement for black studies and fairness in the judicial process.

“We understood,” she says, “that the university needed to make changes that would improve the experience for all students. That was an early lesson in understanding that my fate is inextricably tied to that of others.”

Ginzberg first met Sachs in 1974 when she was a budding law student and he was visiting the U.S. to raise funds for the anti-apartheid struggle. She met up with him again in 2009 in South Africa for a cup of coffee and, she says, “a light bulb went off.”

“His story had all the qualities I look for in a film project. He spent his life committed to struggling for justice, he was imprisoned, exiled and bombed, and he survived and returned to South Africa to help draft the Constitution and then serve on the Constitutional Court. What an arc, and yet most people had never heard of him, so my criterion of the not-well-known character was met. His story combined a strong personal narrative set against the backdrop of the anti-apartheid movement that enabled me to weave biography and history into a strong story.”

As within the U.S. today, many young South Africans aren’t aware of all of the facets of their country’s civil rights struggle, so it’s been heartening for Ginzberg to see the reaction of young viewers when the film has played in South Africa. Soft Vengeance has played around the world, racking up a trove of accolades.

The film’s title is based on a statement by Sachs. On his hospital bed after the bombing, he received a note from supporters promising to avenge the attack. But Sachs responded that he didn’t want a blind and limbless South Africa, that instead he’d have a “soft vengeance” ― which he did, of historical proportion. In a chilling turn, Ginzberg’s film includes an interview with Henri, the very man who nearly took Sachs’ life by planting the bomb.

Meanwhile, Sachs finished his court term in 2009 and continues his mission, but on a global level. He also candidly acknowledges the magnitude of what he already has attained, and further progress that is needed:

“We have done the impossible … making a country for all where the world predicted a racial bloodbath. The Constitution is deeply implanted. People speak their minds. We have free and fair elections. The President steps down after two terms. Our judiciary is independent. The economy is being driven by a fast-growing black middle class. But,” he adds, “we still have huge inequality connected with race. People are angry about poor leadership and corruption. Having managed to achieve the miraculous, we must now learn to master the mundane.”

The lesson from both Sachs and Ginzberg is that it only takes one person to advocate for social justice … plus one, plus one, ad infinitum.

the TICKET stub

When: Through Feb. 22
Where: Doris Duke Theatre
Cost: $10 general
Info: 532-8701, olulumuseum.org