On Alchemy, Law, and Life
It could have been the plot of a John Grisham novel. A lawyer assisting an underground, illegal group. Yet, he does understand the importance of maintaining order and sees the historical underpinnings of the system the underground group tries to overthrow. But the book is not a novel; rather the reflections of Albie Sachs, that lawyer who turned into one of South Africa’s most renowned judges and a key force in interpreting its post-Apartheid constitution.
His “The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law” follows the venerable tradition of books on judicial reasoning. These books, including famously by several American Supreme Court judges, are typically wonderful and wondrous journeys into logic and deductions.
Sachs’s book delivers on the intellectual expectations. But what sets it apart is its background: the period the author helped shape. The late 1980s and 1990s in South Africa saw the end of Apartheid, the beginning of majority rule in the country, and crucially a societal soul-searching that entailed questions about the essence of the political transition this multi-racial, multi-cultural country was then living through.
Fear was in the air. Many White South Africans were anxious, and some I know and saw at that period, wanted to leave to build new lives “away”. Even among those who understood the bankruptcy and the inevitability of the end of the Apartheid system, there were acute concerns about what “the majority” would do after they come to power.
At the core of these concerns were questions about justice. This is hardly surprising in a society that lived for many decades under a socio-political structure in which not only a minority ruled over the majority, but also in which that minority excluded the majority from almost all meaningful political and economic participation.
The existence of a leader with the morals and gravitas of Nelson Mandela proved to be a safety valve. So was close observation of the country by several powerful international stakeholders. Yet, neither Mandela nor major global powers could have guaranteed stability and a peaceful transition, for the questions about justice, and the natural urges for retribution (and some would say, for revenge) were impossible to douse. There were moments when flames seemed destined to become fires. But at the end the majority of “the majority” chose to forgive. Naturally they also chose “never to forget”, which carried with it the potentiality of exacting (the all human) subjective versions of justice.
It is here that Albie Sachs’s brilliance shines, for a key stream of this book revolves round this subjectivity of justice. As an experienced judge, Sachs dismisses the superficiality with which most of us address this grave notion of justice. He respects emotions. Actually one of the beautiful features of this book is the humanity that this old judge displays in his thinking and reasoning. But here rendering justice elevates above rapid assessments and stirred emotions. Here justice is deliberated, analysed, seen from myriad angles and explored under different lights. We come to see this beguiling subjectivity of justice. Often we are left confused with conflicting arguments. Yet, through these explorations and by appreciating this subjectivity, we also come to respect the gravity of the idea of justice.
Respect goes further. Sachs conveys a crucial aspect of what justice is: respecting the people for whom justice is supposed to be rendered. His lengthy expositions, assessments of different arguments, linking the historical and grandeur with the specific and mundane, all humanise justice, as well as make it accessible. Sachs allows us, ordinary people without training in logic and rhetoric, to relate to justice in one of its most elevated expressions.
Sachs could have stopped at the big arguments, philosophical interpretations, and the resounding statements about justice. But he courageously chose to let us (the readers) inside the labyrinths of specific cases on which he ruled. And through the details we gradually discern the shape of his thinking. There is joy in observing his thinking. There is education for most readers, for such shadowing of a great mind is a valuable opportunity. And, in observing his thinking, we get glimpses of the real dilemmas that were inherent in South Africa’s political and social transition.
I think this exposition on the idea and practice of justice also carries with it legitimacy. Sachs is linked to the legal foundations of South Africa’s post-Apartheid governing structure. His elaboration on the importance of thinking about justice from different standpoints, and the intellectual rigour with which he undertook that thinking, give credibility to the notion that there were serious attempts in this country to uphold justice, despite the acute social and political complications inherent in its transition. And this is one of strongest foundations of the legitimacy of any political system.
That Albie Sachs achieves that lofty objective in a lucid style of writing, and without any claim to grandeur, but actually often through playfulness and not taking himself too seriously, strengthens his book. The digestibility here is a rare quality among books on judicial reasoning.
Out of Sachs’s lucidity and playfulness there emerge spaces for disagreements with him. We (the readers) are given many inputs, and are subtly encouraged by that colossal mind to think alongside him. In the details of the cases, and on what they lead to, perhaps most readers would sit back, listen and learn. Yet, in how the thinking coalesces into a view about these grand notions – scoping justice, delivering it, and the links to the socio-political system in the country at that difficult juncture in its history – many readers would read, think, re-think, before arriving at different destinations from those Sachs arrived at. This is beautiful, because the lucidity and flow of the writing stir the minds and encourage the readers to think independently. In a way, Albie Sachs allows us to become judges on his own judgements.