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‘Soft Vengeance’ subject and filmmaker speak about Apartheid

Published: September 19, 2014
Section: News


On the evening of Sept. 11, the Brandeis International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life sponsored a viewing and discussion of the film “Soft Vengeance,” a documentary chronicling the life of apartheid activist and South African judge, Albie Sachs. The National Center for Jewish Film and the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice also contributed to organizing this event.

The sold out viewing began with a brief introduction by Daniel Terris, director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life. Terris both introduced filmmaker Abby Ginzberg and praised Sachs for creating “opportunities for social transformation from the ashes of violence.” Prior to the start of the documentary, Ginzberg revealed that she had especially chosen Brandeis for the first campus screening of this film, because she “felt social justice [ran] through the veins of this university in a way that is unique.”

From the beginning of the film, it became instantly clear that social justice is indeed its most integral theme. “Soft Vengeance” recounts Sachs’ relatively privileged upbringing as a white South African and juxtaposes it with the struggle for justice and equality in the nation. Even as a very young man, Sachs is shown to have fought against the oppressive South African government, refusing to leave a “non-white” bench even when confronted by a police officer.
Several years later, Sachs, now a lawyer, joined the freedom seeking African National Congress (ANC), in which Nelson Mandela and others activists participated. Sachs was imprisoned for his work with the ANC, which included defending black ANC members in court and participating in protests. Throughout his imprisonment, he was kept in solitary confinement, which he said was “worse than I ever imagined.” Following his release, Sachs left South Africa to live in England and Mozambique, where he was “unhappy even when I was happy” because he was exiled from his homeland.

During his time in Mozambique, South African Intelligence placed a bomb in his car, which gravely injured Sachs. He lost his right arm and can no longer see out of one eye. The title of the documentary comes from this experience. He was told by friends: “Don’t worry, comrade Albie. We will avenge you,” but Sachs, horrified at the idea of more violence, thought to himself, “If we get democracy and freedom in South Africa, that will be my soft vengeance.”

While Sachs was in exile and recuperating from his near-death experience, the ANC gained international attention and the government of South Africa negotiated with them. As a result, in March 1990, after 24 years in exile, Sachs finally returned to South Africa.

After a long, arduous struggle, democratic elections were finally secured in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela was elected president. Mandela then appointed Sachs and 10 others to the new Constitutional Court of South Africa. During his tenure as Justice (1994-2009), Sachs worked to have the death penalty outlawed, wrote the opinion on legalizing same-sex marriage in South Africa and made other significant contributions to the nation.

Immediately after the credits began, several Brandeis students commented that they enjoyed the film and that they were “grateful for the experience.” When the screening ended, the audience was invited to participate in a question and answer session with both Sachs and Ginzberg. Ginzberg spoke briefly about how glad she was to have made this film and declared that “Albie is a joy to be around.”

Referencing the title, Sachs explained his thoughts on the film: “Soft can be strong, can be resilient, can reach parts that hard cannot reach, and that’s why I love this film,” he said. He then patiently answered students’ questions about his philosophy of law, his time in prison and “what it feels like to have a documentary made about you.”

Sachs was also asked about the many challenges that South Africa still faces, like corruption and unemployment. Although Sachs focused on the progress and successes that South Africa has seen, he made it clear that there is still much work to be done and that “real reconciliation will only occur when there is true equality.”