Justice Sachs on Oliver Tambo’s vision of a Constitution that empowered the people, not individuals

On 24 August Justice Albie Sachs, retired justice of the South African Constitutional Court, delivered the fourth lecture in the Oliver Tambo Centenary Lecture Series at Stellenbosch University, co-hosted by the H.F. Oppenheimer Chair in Human Rights Law of the Law Faculty, the Research Chair for Historical Trauma and Transformation and the Director, University Museum.

The lecture focused on the theme “The Constitution as an Instrument of Decolonisation and Achieving True Equality”. In the lecture Justice Sachs argued that  the objective of the Constitution was always to achieve political self determination through democracy as the gateway to the attainment of social and economic rights. The Constitution was not the product of dealings between so-called “Great Men,” but the outcome of people’s struggle. Thus, gender issues, to which OR Tambo was especially attentive, workers’ rights, and children’s rights were issues sharply raised in debates and were all themes very close to OR Tambo’s heart.

Prof Sandy Liebenberg, Justice Albie Sachs and Prof Nicola Smit, Dean of the Law Faculty.

Justice Sachs urged a new generation of South Africans to continue the pursuit of deep transformation and to use the Constitution as the basis of their efforts. He reminded the audience of OR Tambo’s profound concern for people at a personal level and their lives and struggles and noted that that ethos was coded into the text of the Constitution. In this respect Sachs stated that “when you become a revolutionary you do not lose your humanity, you bring your humanity into the revolution”. Justice Sachs placed particular emphasis on the entrenchment of justiciable socio-economic rights in the South African Constitution as an important foundation for the pursuit of transformation in South Africa and lauded the work of Prof Sandy Liebenberg, HF Oppenheimer Chair in Human Rights Law at Stellenbosch University, for her role in advocating the inclusion of these rights in the Constitution during the constitution-writing process.

Justice Sachs recounted many examples that showed why the South African Constitution cannot be typified as a “sweetheart” deal between a small number of elites. He emphasised that the Constitution is indeed an African document in that it was an integral part of the ANC culture since as early as 1923.

Prof Sandy Liebenberg thanks Justice Sachs for his lecture.

In thanking Justice Sachs, Prof Liebenberg stated that he “has delivered a profound and historically-grounded account of the Constitution which unsettles claims that the Constitution was an elite compact and an obstacle to genuine transformation and redistribution in South Africa. He has provided us with a richly textured account of the integral connections between the Constitution and the struggles of the dispossessed, workers, women and children’s rights advocates for social justice. Albie’s lecture challenges us to avoid populist slogans about constitutionalism in South Africa and to reflect on its connections with the emancipatory traditions from which it emerged.”

For more on the ‘Oliver Tambo Centenary Lecture Series’ click here. 

Postgraduate law student, Leigh-Ann Kiewitz, Justice Sachs and Archbishop Thabo Makgoba after the lecture.

Members of the Law Faculty at the lecture.

Photographs: Anton Jordaan.

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