LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's a special man who can move from freedom fighter to founding father. That's what Albie Sachs did in South Africa. Once imprisoned, tortured, and exiled, he helped write the South African Constitution. He was then appointed by Nelson Mandela to serve on the nation's Constitutional Court, analogous to our Supreme Court. Sachs has written 10 books, including his latest, "The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law." NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has this profile.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Sometimes in the life of a reporter, you meet a person so extraordinary, so interesting, that you want to share that experience with others. Such is the case with Albie Sachs, whom I met while on vacation in South Africa. He is white and Jewish, the son of trade union activists. He first became involved in the anti-apartheid movement more than 60 years ago when he was a 17-year-old college student. He graduated with a law degree and went on to represent many of the African National Congress activists imprisoned, tortured and even sentenced to death for their political activities.

Eventually, the authorities came for him, too. In 1963, he was arrested without charge, put in solitary confinement for six months, and later arrested again, interrogated and tortured. He eventually fled the country and spent the next 24 years in exile, much of it in Mozambique, where he taught law at the university and worked with leaders of the African National Congress to bring down the white South African government. No anti-apartheid activist was safe in those days, even outside South Africa. Many were targets for assassination by the South African security forces. And in 1988, a bomb placed in Albie Sachs's car exploded, nearly killing him. Doctors managed to save his life, but his right arm was gone and he was blinded in one eye. Eventually, he was transported to England.

ALBIE SACHS: When I was lying in the London hospital, arm blown off, recovering the sight of my one good eye, I received a note from a friend of mine saying: We will avenge you. And I felt very uncomfortable with that. We're going to cut off the arms of the people who did this? Are we going to blind them in one eye? What sort of a country is that? Is that what we're fighting for?

TOTENBERG: What Sachs wanted instead, even for the men who had bombed his car, was what he calls soft vengeance, not hard vengeance.

SACHS: Hard vengeance means you're still at the level of the people who did these awful things. Soft vengeance is the triumph of your life, of your ideals, of your goals.

TOTENBERG: Two years after the bombing, the South African government caved to international pressure, released Nelson Mandela after 27 years imprisonment, recognized the ANC and other opposition groups, and began the process of negotiating a democratic transition to majority rule in an overwhelmingly non-white country.

After 24 years in exile, Sachs now returned and was appointed to the committee charged with drafting a new constitution for a new-non-racial state. So, since he was one of the founding fathers, as it were, I asked him about a question that has roiled the legal waters in the United States: What does he think of the notion of original intent as a way of figuring out what the constitution means? He demurred as it applies to the U.S., but when it comes to South Africa, Sachs says that even though he was what he calls one of the original intenders, discerning intent is next to impossible.

SACHS: We would come up with a draft, and it would be commented on by others and go through different committees, and it wasn't as though there was a meaning that we attributed to it and intended to be there for all time.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, Sachs says, that when he goes over the reams of old drafting documents these days, he's often surprised.

SACHS: Oh, gosh, is this what we had in mind? I didn't remember we crossed out certain words. In fact, as interesting as what appears in the final version would be what was dropped along the way. And there's usually very little record of that.

TOTENBERG: Even the word intent, he maintains, is not clear.

SACHS: What were you willing to concede from people on your side, on the other side, who saw the words differently? And a certain moment comes when you say, enough, we've got to get on with the constitution.

TOTENBERG: There were, of course, some things that Albie Sachs insisted on - among them, a guarantee of no detention without trial.

SACHS: It wasn't enough simply to guarantee the right to be brought before court within 48 hours. We had to put in expressly no detention without trial shall be permitted, because that was the weapon that was used to detain thousands and thousands of us. It completely subverted the whole of criminal procedure. It made, in effect, the security police the arbiters of who were guilty, who not.

TOTENBERG: The designers of the new constitution were trying to create a system of impartial justice. Still, one can't help but wonder about a more visceral justice, and why it is that after so many decades of brutal oppression, the non-white majority did not, in fact, take vengeance on the white oppressors. Albie Sachs' answer to that question is complicated. It combines the Gandhi tradition of non-violence - which started when Gandhi lived in South Africa - with the British tradition of judicial fairness, and the decades-long struggle by Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and other leaders whose aim was a non-racial society.

SACHS: We want to prove to our fellow South Africans - we want to prove to the world black and white can live together. This was like a vision. It was an aspiration.

TOTENBERG: There was, he says, a kind of ache to get beyond divisions. And at rock bottom, he says, neither whites nor nonwhites could survive alone.

SACHS: We actually needed each other.

TOTENBERG: So could he really just forgive and forget?

SACHS: Forgive, yes. Forget, no.

TOTENBERG: In that vein, Sachs recalls his meeting with one of the men who planted the bomb in his car. His name was Henri, an officer of the security police, who came to see Justice Sachs in his chambers to seek forgiveness. The two men talked for a very long time, until Sachs finally ended the meeting with these words.

SACHS: Normally, when I say goodbye to somebody, I shake that person's hand. I can't shake your hand. But go to the Truth Commission, tell them what you know, and who knows, one day we'll meet.

TOTENBERG: After that, Sachs forgot about the man who tried to kill him, until many, many months later when he was at a big, raucous party.

SACHS: I hear a voice saying, Albie. I looked around: Albie. By God, it's Henri.

TOTENBERG: The two men found a quiet corner, and Henri told him that he had, in fact, gone to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and told them everything he knew.

SACHS: And I said, Henri, I've only got your face to tell me that what you're saying is the truth. And I put out my left hand and I shook his hand. He went away absolutely elated, and I almost fainted. It was a real shock for me. But I heard afterwards that he'd been dancing around, and suddenly he left the party and he went home and he cried for two weeks. And that moved me. I'm not Henri's friend. I don't want to go to a movie with him, but we're starting to live in the same country. And to me, that's far more meaningful than if he'd been sent to jail.

TOTENBERG: It is, in Albie Sachs's view, soft vengeance. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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