Albie Sachs, with his wife Vanessa and their four-year-old son, Oliver.
Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
Patrick Barkham @patrick_barkham
In Mozambique in 1988, Albie Sachs was nearly killed by a car bomb. The anti-apartheid campaigner lost his right arm and was blinded in his left eye. Ever since, he says, life has been like a fable. "Until then I was just another one of thousands of people in exile who had been in the struggle. The bomb for me introduced the element of madness [you find] in fable," says Sachs, when we meet this week in London.
"To wake up without an arm but to feel joyously alive, to learn to do everything – to sit up, to stand, to walk, to run, to write again. Every little detail became a moment of discovery and breakthrough. I had an absolute conviction that as I got better, my country got better."
It's perhaps for this reason that he gave his account of the assassination attempt, and his recovery, the striking title The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter.
When Sachs wrote the memoir about his rehabilitation, he was a lawyer in exile and it was far from certain that apartheid would be replaced by stable democracy. After the publication in 1990, the fable of South Africa and Sachs unfolded in unexpected directions and now, aged 76, Sachs has added several postscripts to his story. After recuperating in London, he returned to South Africa and played a key role in drafting its democratic constitution. Nelson Mandela made him a judge in the new constitutional court, where Sachs made a number of landmark rulings, including recognising gay marriage. If the car bomb precipitated a kind of rebirth for Sachs, he has also been granted a second go at fatherhood. "That sense of one fabulous episode after another has continued and then finally, as in all good fables, the guy gets the bride," he says, speaking easily in the immaculately modulated tones of a – recently retired – judge. After meeting his second wife, Vanessa, they had a son, Oliver. "He's been a total delight. So I now have a son of 41, a son of 40 and one of four."
An instantly recognisable figure in Cape Town, Sachs lives close to the beach where he and Oliver hang out together wearing Panama hats. "It's big Albie and little Albie, and he's kind of sparky. He's got presence," smiles Sachs. They play football and snakes and ladders and every Saturday visit their local cafe for chocolate croissants and cranberry juice. In this idyllic second fatherhood, there is just one dilemma: how does he explain his arm, and apartheid, to his young son?
Sachs was born into a fervently political Jewish family. His father Soli was a renowned trade unionist who fought against racism in South Africa. "I had a father who was in the news a lot. My emotions were mixed. It was mainly pride," he says. Soli, who was separated from Sachs's mother, was fairly remote. "In many ways he was the guy behind the newspaper – I saw the top of his head sticking out and his knees underneath." During the second world war, Sachs received a postcard from his father: "'Dear Albert, congratulations on your sixth birthday. May you grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation.' Now that's fantastic and it's heavy. I would never send Oliver a postcard like that."
Sachs was more hands-on with his sons, Alan and Michael, from his first marriage to fellow freedom fighter Stephanie Kemp. The couple had both been imprisoned for opposing apartheid; after they were released, they moved to London, living there in the 1970s and 80s, until Sachs went to work in Mozambique. When he was blown up in the capital, Maputo, the African National Congress (ANC) immediately flew Alan and Michael to see their father, which was wonderful, he says. The fact that the bomb, fixed under his car by the South African security service, had not killed him left him feeling buoyant rather than angry. But were his London-born boys furious with their father for putting himself in harm's way – or were they at least more angry than he was with the racist secret agents who tried to kill him? Sachs thinks not. "We used to speak about the regime, the system. It wasn't personalised in that sense. It was apartheid. You pick up a lot from your parents – rancour, anger, hatred. Maybe spending time with me and seeing that I was just joyous ... I don't know. You would have to ask them, but there's nothing that makes me suspect [they were angry]."
In hospital, Sachs received a note from a freedom fighter friend that read: "Don't worry, comrade Albie, we will avenge you." He was dismayed. "What does he mean? We're going to cut off the arms and blind in one eye the people who did this?" Soon after the attack, Sachs heard that a man had been apprehended over the bomb plot and, for the first time, the concept of soft vengeance came to him. "I said to myself, if he's put on trial and the evidence is insufficient and he is acquitted, that would be my soft vengeance – living under the rule of law. And if we get freedom and democracy, that will be my soft vengeance." Sachs never found out what happened to the suspect, but he got his wish. "The whole achievement of our wonderful new democratic constitution is soft vengeance. It totally smites the horror, the division, the hatreds, the separations of apartheid but it does so in a way that is benign and creative and humanising. It's a far more profound vengeance than doing to them what they did to us."
Sachs possesses a remarkable ability to extract positive emotions from wounding events; he even sees his near death as having a galvanising effect on his sons. "South Africa was like a dread country in which both its parents had been locked up," he says. The assassination attempt inspired both to visit South Africa for the first time. Michael, who had left school at 16, then enrolled in an ANC school in Tanzania. Both now live in South Africa. Alan – "very talented, very quiet, thoughtful" – is an artist; Michael a developmental economist. If they ever struggled with having such a public figure for a father, then Sachs does not know about it. Besides, he says, proudly: "For a long time I was Soli's son. Now I've become Michael's father. Michael Sachs is very well known in Johannesburg. For anyone under 45, I'm Michael's dad. For anyone over 80, I'm Soli's son. So there's that little window in between where I'm Albie. I'm proud of those identities."
There is a small voice in the distance.
"Albie, can I come to you?"
"Do you want to come to us?" Sachs calls back to his son.
"I want to come to you," says Oliver, who at nearly five already boasts a lawyer's precise grasp of language.
Oliver joins us, followed by Vanessa, who is 45. It seems a good moment to ask how they met. Sachs insists that his wife tells the story.
In 1992, Vanessa was invited to a party by a mixed-race friend who had been living with an older white man for 12 years. To avoid arrest during apartheid, the friend pretended to be a maid so they could live in the same house. "I didn't remember specifically meeting Albie but three months after, the host told my friend that Albie was quite taken with me," says Vanessa. So she read a copy of Soft Vengeance. "I fell in love with the narrator, partly because he was so sensuous and in touch with his emotions and vulnerable and fragile in expressing that," she says.
Sachs describes himself as a feminist and is clearly powerfully attracted to women: he admits in Soft Vengeance to falling in love with many of the nurses, psychiatrists and occupational therapists who helped his recovery. Did Vanessa fear he was a bit of a ladies' man? "I saw that as part of his recovery. I didn't see myself in that role in my attraction to him," she laughs. "What did help the attraction was that on the cover of the book was a very striking photo of Albie. That helped me in my fantasies."
Vanessa kept a copy by her bedside and, three years later, bumped into Sachs at an airport. She introduced herself "and I realised people do that to him all the time – go up to him and say hello, and he tries to remember," she says. "He pretended he remembered." She then engineered a dinner party "to see if he was like the man in the book. And if there was any chemistry." They swapped numbers. Vanessa thought she would wait seven days before calling; Sachs phoned after three. They eventually got together at a New Year's Eve party thrown by the British high commission. "It was a bit like a fairytale really," she says.
"I never really thought of it – The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter brought us together," says Sachs. "One of the purposes of literature is to ..."
"... crawl into women's hearts," finishes Vanessa, with another laugh.
Oliver is politically precocious – as a toddler he could recognise Nelson Mandela – but his parents don't talk to him about politics. "It's a much more normal upbringing than I had," says Sachs. Two weeks ago, however, Sachs was stunned when conversation turned to guns. "I said, 'Do you like guns, Oliver?' And he said, 'Yeeess!'" Sachs mimics the pure joy of a four-year-old gun lover. "I said, 'Guns are terrible, they are used for killing people.' And he said, 'But, Daddy, you used guns when fighting for freedom.' Now I've never told him that. I don't know where he got it from. We don't discuss things like that."
The one occasion when they discussed the violence of the past was last year, when Sachs took Oliver to the spot in Maputo where he was blown up. "The idea was I would explain to Oliver why his daddy looks different," says Sachs. "I wanted him to know directly from me at the place where the explosion took place. And we sat down where my body ended up, next to where the car exploded, and I cradled him, using my left arm to hold him. I explained to him I came out of the apartment," he makes a swooping motion with his right arm, "and I was about to enter my car and 'boooom' suddenly everything went dark. And I found I could explain how I was taken to hospital and how I'm very strong now. Then I wanted to explain who did this, and why, and I couldn't talk to him about that – how people disrespected other people so much because they didn't have the same appearance. It seemed like pulling him back into so much ugliness. I felt it would be just wrong. All I could say was, they were cruel people who did this."
The balance between remembering and forgetting and passing on memories of struggle to a new generation is a subtle one for Sachs and for South Africa. "There is so much we take for granted and it's wonderful we take it for granted and it's terrible we take it for granted," he says. "It's wonderful that we have free and fair elections every five years and our president steps down after two terms and people speak their minds. In fact, the biggest growth industry in South Africa today is standup comedians. What is terrible is that it is as though it just came to pass." The creation of the new South Africa, in which Sachs has played such a role, has "the sense of surprise, amazement, of a miracle", he says, "but every single detail was planned and worked for. I used to think that when we got freedom we'd have no more meetings. And then we had more meetings. Freedom isn't miracles ... It was just persistence."
During apartheid, he and Vanessa would not have been allowed to kiss, let alone marry. "I don't want to even discuss that with Oliver. I don't want him to know his mummy and daddy could ever have been separated in that way," says Sachs. "I've written quite a lot – maybe one day he can pick up the books when he feels like it. I don't want him to feel having a parent who is in the public eye as a weight, as something he has to carry around with him."
Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter by Albie Sachs is published by Souvenir theguardian.com/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846