Honorary doctorate for anti-apartheid campaigner

An anti-apartheid lawyer and human rights activist from South Africa has been presented with an honorary doctorate by Sheffield Hallam University.

Albert ‘Albie’ Louis Sachs spent his career campaigning for human rights and international justice spending time in jail for his work for the freedom movement during the height of apartheid.

He was presented with an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in recognition of his outstanding achievements in human rights activism at Sheffield Hallam’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice last Friday 5 July.

Afterwards he gave lecture as part of the centre’s Justice Talks programme.

The honour was bestowed on him by international human rights lawyer and University chancellor Baroness Helena Kennedy QC with Sheffield Hallam University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Chris Husbands attending, alongside other dignitaries.

Albie Sachs was born in Johannesburg in 1935. His father, Solly Sachs, had arrived in South Africa from Lithuania at the age of six on the eve of the First World War, and his mother, Ray, had arrived as an infant. Both of his parents were involved in the Communist Party and trade unionism.

His career in human rights activism started in 1952, when as a 17 year old second year law student at the University of Cape Town, he took part in the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. Three years later, he attended the Congress of the People at Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was adopted.

He began his practice as an advocate at the Cape Bar when he was 21, and most of his work involved defending people charged under apartheid’s racist statutes and repressive security laws. Many of the people he defended were facing the death sentence. As a result of his work, he was raided by the security police, subjected to banning orders restricting his movement and was placed in solitary confinement for 168 days without trial. He eventually went into exile in 1966.

He spent eleven years studying and teaching law in England and a further eleven years in Mozambique working as a law professor and legal researcher. On 7 April 1988, a bomb that was placed in his car in Maputo by South African security agents, blew up. He lost an arm and the sight of one eye.

In exile during the 1980s, Sachs worked closely with Oliver Tambo the leader of the African National Congress, and helped draft the organisation’s Code of Conduct and statutes. After recovering from the effects of the bomb blast, he devoted himself full-time to preparations for a new democratic Constitution for South Africa.

Finally, in 1990, he returned home. As a member of the Constitutional Committee and the National Executive Committee of the ANC, he played an active role in the negotiations which led to South Africa becoming a constitutional democracy. After the first democratic election in 1994, he was appointed by then President Nelson Mandela to serve on the newly established Constitutional Court.

As a constitutional court judge, Justice Sachs was the chief architect of the post-apartheid constitution of 1996. As one of 11 green-robed judges, he participated in landmark rulings. These rulings included declaring capital punishment a violation of the right to life, to making it unconstitutional to prevent gay and lesbian people from marrying. The court also backed Aids campaigners in 2002, by insisting that the government had a duty to provide HIV-positive pregnant women with drugs to reduce the risk of transmission to their new-born babies.

Albie Sachs’ father, Solly, also went into exile in England in the 1950s and joined the Labour Party. He was a candidate in the general election for the Hallam constituency in Sheffield, so Sheffield is an important part of his family history.

Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said: “I am absolutely delighted to welcome Albie Sachs to Sheffield Hallam. The Honorary Doctorate is one of the highest awards the University can bestow and is conferred in appreciation and esteem to a very limited number of people each year.

“Albie Sachs has been awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of laws (Hon. LLD) in recognition of his outstanding achievements in human rights activism and the struggle against apartheid. The Honorary Awards Committee was particularly pleased to make the award to someone whose reputation and values aligned so strongly with those of the University.”

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