Sunday, February 20, 2011

An old reflection

An old reflection

In my first newsletter to Introduction to Law students, in the last couple of years, I have included this reflection of an encounter with Justice Albie Sachs from South Africa.

I wrote the extract below in 2008 when I was overseas rather than teaching first week Introduction to Law. Last year during my 2010 work travels (10 countries, several conferences), I met the cousin of the judge who is the focus of my 2008 reflection – Justice Albie Sachs recently retired from the Constitutional Court of South Africa. His cousin, a sprightly elderly woman, described how she used to take food to Albie each day while he was in prison during the apartheid years in South Africa. She was very annoyed with me because I was leaving South Africa the next morning as she wanted me to visit Albie and would have taken me to see him. Three things struck me. First, how was I in this position to be offered the chance to meet a truly inspirational man (and being unable to take up opportunity)? Secondly, how deeply she was committed to her country despite the massive problems (in some areas 60-80% of population have aids, areas with high illiteracy 50% +, high unemployment). Third, Shirley and her husband Ben Rabinowitz are among the richest folk in Cape Town (and among the most significant contributors to charity, the arts, sports and scholarships) – were willing to give up their time to allow a complete stranger to meet their cousin. I met her whilst at a dinner with 50 odd lawyers, judges and former judges – many of them women. Many of them had played significant roles in keeping the worst ravages of apartheid at bay and in rebuilding their country. I hope some part of my teaching will be enriched by their example and experiences they shared with me.

The 2008 reflection
It has been strange to be away from Uni for the first week. As a co-ordinator of two subjects (Introduction to Law and Law 204 Administrative Law) I feel guilty or at least irresponsible for delegating my work to other people whilst I am travelling in the US.

In contrast I think that this trip has added enormously to my understanding of law, legal education and strengthen my desire to be an effective teacher. I have now seen and been involved in classes in 4 very different US law schools (New Mexico, Brandeis, Washington College of Law, Charlotte).

More importantly the after dinner speech last night in the exquisitely beautiful banquet room of the First National Reserve Bank of Atlanta would have been worth the last 20 days on the road, living out of a suitcase and putting up with extra security checks at every airport because I was a foreigner who had purchased his tickets outside the US.

Why did the dinner speech have such an impact?

It was not the large marbled hallways, the beautiful works of art, the boardroom table that probably cost a few hundred thousand dollars. It certainly was not the 18 hours of conference attendance over the last 3 days.

First the guest speaker was introduced by former President Jimmy Carter. Carter has redefined the role of former Presidents and the conference I have been at for the past 3 days at the Carter Centre perfectly illustrates this. 125 delegates (political leaders, activists, key donors and scholars) brought together to tackle a major issue see

Yet the key moment was the speech of Justice Albie Sachs – a founding member of the Constitutional Court of South Africa see

This elderly gentleman quietly stood at the podium. In a gentle voice he asked us what was the moment in our life that most challenged us as individuals. Many, like me, were flickering through a catelogue of events that seemed unremarkable or not significant enough to air in this august forum.

Justice Sachs with a simple statement and movement then proceeded to hold us spellbound. He said

“It was not the bombing which left me with this (flaps around a stump where his right arm once was), a bombing authorised by the state of South Africa. No it was my cracking under the slow torture inflicted upon me in a South African police cell…” – he then proceeded in soft unemotional words to paint the picture of a proud lawyer driven pass the point of physical endurance who was forced to sign a confession to crimes and to implicate friends and others. Still clinging to the last vestiges of pride by starting his confession “I make this confession under duress, I have been tortured…” yet too weak and defeated to resist being forced to sign blank sheets of paper so that his “real confession” could be typed on it.

The rest of the talk covered how he came back from this personal hell to be a key figure in restoring the rule of law in his beloved country.

Last night left me pondering what is it about the law that captures some people’s imaginations so deeply and becomes ingrained so completely with their souls that they can endure physical attack and cold, calculating torture? Endure it with enough faith to replant the seeds, after their own personal low point, for a better justice system.

What was it, and how was it passed on, in Justice Sach’s legal education, that allowed him, or committed him, so strongly to the rule of law? Can I, or will I ever, be able to pass this on to any of my students?

The other notable event yesterday was a quiet walk, in the Japanese Garden at the Carter Centre, with the head of Google Global Development and another scholar. The three of us talked about how Google could make accessible more of the necessary information that people at the bottom of the pyramid (the bottom 25% of the world’s population in terms of income, life expectancy, education etc) need. I probably was able to offer little new insight but it was an incredible opportunity to have just even a very brief input into an exciting enterprise. Certainly all those decades ago as a young first year law student, still with the rough edges of Queenstown on proud display, I never imagined that I would have experienced a day like yesterday. An experience that arose as a result of my continual legal education.

Yet I am annoyed with myself. The walk and the discussion was unexpected – so I wasn’t prepared. My input was therefore limited. A good lesson about being prepared for any circumstance including accidental opportunities.

No comments: