Interview - Cara's long embrace of a saviour of Africa
Anti-apartheid campaigner Albie Sachs has twice received a lifeline, writes David Matthews
Albie Sachs’ extraordinary life story is well known across the world: a legal scholar who campaigned against apartheid, in 1988 he lost an arm and the sight in one eye as a result of a bomb planted by South African security forces.
He later achieved “soft vengeance”, as he puts it, when Nelson Mandela appointed him one of the founding judges of the country’s post-apartheid Constitutional Court.
Sachs also has another rather less well-known mark of distinction: he is the only academic to have received help from the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics twice.
A prosthetic arm and a bathroom converted into an office where he could work on a new constitution for South Africa are just two of the things Cara has provided him with over the years.
Before delivering an address about his involvement with the council at University College London in November to mark Cara’s upcoming 80th anniversary, Sachs told Times Higher Education how the assistance had changed his life.
Born in 1935 to Lithuanian Jewish emigrant parents who were involved in South African trade union activism, Sachs was raised to the Bar in Cape Town at the age of 21.
He defended those charged under racist statutes and repressive security laws, many of whom faced execution, and was raided by the security forces before eventually being placed in solitary confinement and subjected to sleep deprivation.
Forced into exile in 1966, he arrived in the UK a “psychological wreck”, he explains.
Cara “made it possible for me to do a doctorate at the University of Sussex, re-establish myself as a person, a human being, a thinker, and get on with my life”.
“The looking after was much more than just financial,” he emphasises, although the council did organise funding for him from the Joseph Rowntree Trust. “Cara…organised the contacts, and they were more a facilitator than a funder at that stage,” he explains.
Cara began life in 1933 as the Academic Assistance Council, founded by Sir William Beveridge to aid academics under threat in Nazi Germany. In 1936 it became known as the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning.
Of the scholars it assisted in the 1930s and 1940s, 16 went on to become Nobel laureates, for example German biochemist Hans Krebs, who was barred from working in Germany by the Nazis in 1933 and left for the UK, where he would hold positions at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield and Oxford.
Countries have a duty to assist refugees, Sachs argues. But receiving persecuted scholars is not simply about assisting the needy, “it’s part and parcel of the transmission of ideas”, he adds. “British life and American life were hugely enriched by the great intellectuals who were fleeing from Hitler.”
Refugee academics are not “just poor displaced people looking for alms”, and Cara is not simply about “Britain being wonderful and nice and kind…it’s a place of interchange, of interaction,” he says.
After completing his doctorate at Sussex, Sachs chose to lecture in many different areas of law at the University of Southampton in order to gain further expertise to take back to a South Africa he hoped would one day be free.
He wrote about the UK’s legal system in his 1979 work Sexism and the Law: A Study of Male Beliefs and Judicial Bias in Britain and America. “I like to feel that it wasn’t just they (Cara) who helped me, but that I contributed something to British intellectual life,” he says.
In 1977 he moved to Mozambique, where he worked for 11 years as a law professor while continuing to play a role in the political campaign against apartheid with the African National Congress.
Then in 1988 came the event that triggered Sachs’ second involvement with Cara: a bomb planted on his car by South African security agents in the Mozambican capital, Maputo, blew off his right arm and blinded him in one eye.
After lengthy medical treatment, Sachs returned to the UK, where, having been a “psychological wreck” two decades before, he was now a “physical wreck”.
Once again, Cara “was there to receive me; they don’t say ‘one turn and you’re out’,” Sachs recalls.
They funded a prosthetic arm, which Sachs soon ditched. “I hated that fake arm, but I had to try it,” he says.
The council provided money for accommodation, and Sachs was approached by Shula Marks, then the head of Cara, who asked how else he could be helped.
“I was very weak, I’d been in hospital for several months, I could barely walk to the front door to let her in the place I was staying,” he remembers.
But Sachs was determined to work on a new constitution for his country, and Marks, who was then director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, managed to convert one of the institute’s bathrooms into an office and to secure international funding.
The following 18 months of work was a “fabulous time intellectually”, Sachs recalls.
“I could do research and meet people, and float ideas and write position papers, so that (the ability to work on the constitution) was a form of support for me, Albie, the individual, but also a project for democracy in South Africa…a very, very rich period in my life,” he says.
Following South Africa’s first multiracial national election in 1994, Sachs was one of six judges appointed by the new president, Nelson Mandela, to South Africa’s Constitutional Court.
He served for 15 years on the court, during which it made a number of landmark decisions, including Minister of Home Affairs v. Fourie, which ruled that the law prohibiting gay marriage was unconstitutional. Sachs wrote the judgment.
As Cara nears its 80th birthday, the need to help refugee academics shows no sign of diminishing - indeed in many countries persecution is getting worse, according to Anne Lonsdale, current chair of the council.
Since 2003, Cara estimates, more than 400 academics have been murdered in Iraq. Lonsdale has accused Western governments of turning their backs on the plight of persecuted scholars.
In December, the council launched an appeal for funds to help scholars caught in the bloody civil war in Syria, where it says academics and students have been deliberately targeted.
Syrian scholars have also been stranded in the UK because of the fighting, Cara says, and their visas and funds are now close to running out.
Financial aid is very welcome, however Cara offers fleeing academics more than just money, Sachs says.
“It’s not primarily a welfare body; it’s a body that gives support, intellectual (and) moral. It includes material support which can be very valuable, but it’s an embrace, it’s a human embrace.”
Such assistance is crucial, as “you might be a refugee next time, somewhere”, he warns.