Sachs, a founding member of South Africa's Constitutional Court, began his lecture by describing a pivotal weekend—June 25 and 26, 1955—when he and more than 2,000 blacks gathered to adopt the Freedom Charter, which presented the ideals of the anti-apartheid movement and a vision for an equal and democratic society.
Two years earlier, Professor ZK Matthews—a well-known South African leader with a very special connection to Groton School—had proposed the concept of the Freedom Charter. Matthews, Sachs explained, was the grandfather of Groton’s headmaster, Temba Maqubela.
Police broke up that 1955 Freedom Charter meeting and took the names of the participants. A year later, 156 blacks, including Mandela, were put on trial for treason. Sachs described that trial as a turning point for Mandela, who gained notoriety for his compelling and eloquent message. “There was something—his style, his poise, his use of language,” Sachs said. “It put the government on the defense.”
Though the defendants were eventually acquitted in that trial, the government continued clamping down on the rights of blacks. Another influential anti-apartheid leader, Oliver Tambo, left South Africa to generate international support for the cause, Sachs said, while Mandela led the underground struggle within the country.
The speaker related a story about a 1962 meeting with Mandela; Sachs was nervous, realizing he would spend his life in prison if caught. “I met Nelson Mandela literally underground—at a cellar in somebody’s house,” he said, adding that Mandela greeted him with a “big smile on his face…almost bravado.” Sachs would not see Mandela again for many years.
Throughout his lecture, Sachs spoke in a nonchalant tone, as if talking to a group of friends. He discussed the statement he believes truly thrust Mandela upon the world stage, at the 1964 trial that resulted in Mandela’s life sentence. Sachs quoted from Mandela’s powerful oratory, which ended with the following: “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
The ensuing silence in the courtroom was powerful, Sachs said, adding, “In a sense, Nelson Mandela’s voice was never as loud as when he was totally silent.”
The jurist spoke about the years-long negotiations with white leaders after Mandela finally was freed in 1990. “People were telling us to make a deal with the white government, to somehow share power,” he said. “We insisted on a nonracial Constitution.” Sachs ultimately became a primary author of that Constitution.
Mandela’s swearing-in as president of South Africa in 1994 capped Sachs’ lifetime of activism—a lifetime that included several arrests and months in solitary confinement. “The last time I got to my feet in a court was to find out if I was going to be hanged,” he said, recalling the ceremony. Especially gratifying was when the Constitutional Court, to which Mandela had appointed Sachs, struck down two of Mandela’s proclamations several months after he became president. Mandela graciously accepted those decisions, which, Sachs realized, signified an independent court and a true democracy.
The Groton community seemed awed as they listened to stories of Mandela from someone who knew him so well, who had experienced firsthand the history about which many can only read. Sachs had visited with several history classes earlier in the day. "The lecture was awesome in the truest sense of the word, “ said Gates McGavick ’15, who introduced the speaker. “Justice Sachs played a lead role in one of the most unlikely success stories in our human narrative: that of the rebirth of South Africa. It was definitely the best lecture I have ever been to at Groton.”
During the question-and-answer period after the lecture, a student asked Sachs how he reacted after so-called “security” agents from South Africa bombed his car in 1988, while he was in exile in Mozambique. Sachs recalled awakening in a hospital bed and learning that he had lost an arm and vision in one eye. After initial dark thoughts, he said he felt joy. “They’ve come for me and I’ve survived,” he remembered thinking.
He then tied his own physical condition to the condition of his homeland. “You know what?” Sachs told the Groton audience. “I got better and my country got better.”