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Sachs mixes laughter, human rights

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After surviving months of solitary confinement, losing an arm in a car bombing and fighting against one of the most oppressive regimes in recent history, former South African Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs has sufficient cause for a less-than-optimistic disposition.

Yet in a lecture he gave Wednesday as part of the Stanford Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law’s new Program on Human Rights, he proved that his optimism and sense of humor have remained intact throughout his lifelong battle against apartheid in South Africa.

Although his 15 years as a judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa have been marked by socially progressive decisions, his lecture “Does the Law Have a Sense of Humor?” focused mainly on his lifelong advocacy for the power of humor.

Former South African Constitutional Court justice Albie Sachs discusses humor's place in dealing with human rights. (VIVIAN WONG/Staff photographer)

Addressing a crowd of students, faculty and community members in the Bechtel Conference Center, Sachs relayed anecdotes on using humor to combat the darker times in his life.

He recounted a moment in 1988 when he awoke in a hospital, learned that he had been the target of a car bomb and that his arm was in “lamentable condition” — and reacted by telling himself a joke.

“Humor was a big part of our [the anti-apartheid activists’] struggle,” he said. “We needed it to cope.”

Sachs’ reliance on and admiration for humor was a prevailing theme throughout his lecture. He cited a court case in which he supported the “Laugh it Off” T-shirt company, which sold shirts displaying an altered version of a South African Brewery’s logo and criticized their racist labor policies.

The former justice defended the use of humor, saying, “Laughter was being used to resist ideological hegemony and advancing human dignity.”

Sachs stressed that his message was pertinent not just to South Africa, but to the global community as well.

“One thing that really worries me about the international human rights movement is that it’s so damn serious,” he said. “It’s pretty gloomy.”

“A society that takes itself too seriously risks bottling up its tensions,” he added.

Sachs started his involvement in the anti-apartheid movement as a 17-year-old in South Africa and spent much of his life defending those charged under racist statues and discriminatory security laws. He was appointed to South Africa’s Constitutional Court in 1994 by Nelson Mandela, and retired in October 2009.

Sachs told The Daily that his position as a white male gave him a special role in demonstrating that the anti-apartheid effort was more than just about race.

“It was a struggle of principals and values … a just struggle to transform the society,” he said.

Those in attendance reacted to the message — and to Sachs himself — very favorably.

“I just wanted to see him,” said international policy masters student Sandile Hlatshwayo, who came to hear about Sachs and his life story. “It’s a once in lifetime experience to be around greatness.”

Shadi Bushra ’12, attended out of interest for South Africa and Africa in general.

“I had heard he was part of the anti-apartheid movement and wanted to see him,” he said. “I was not disappointed — he’s quite a character.”

Mia Newman ’12, agreed that it was an inspirational talk, and one that carried a very necessary, yet often overlooked, message.

“It’s easy for [the human rights community] to take ourselves too seriously and forget that we’re fighting for humanity,” she said. “And the best part of humanity is joy and laughter … it’s important to keep that in perspective.”

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