Justice Sachs: Building the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg

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Justice Albie Sachs, a lawyer, writer, and veteran of the anti-arpatheid struggle in South Africa, visited Georgia Tech's College of Architecture on February 5, 2007 to give a presentation on the design of the new Constitutional Court Building in Johannesburg, a project that incorporated apartheid-era prison buildings in its re-presentation of the values written into South Africa's audacious new constitution.

To kick off the presentation Justice Sachs showed a documentary film by Lomin Saayman and Lloyd Ross titled, A Tour of the Constitutional Court of South Africa with Justice Albie Sachs. The film draws upon the design process as well as the design itself.

According to Sachs, the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg was designed with the idea of healing a divided society. The building has many layers; while it is a functional courthouse, it also is a public place designed for the people. Traditional courthouses are more formal and intimidating. The Constitutional Court in Johannesburg is not your typical courthouse. It is open, warm, and filled with light and color. The history of the anti-apartheid struggle as well as an amazing array of art from the diverse community of South Africa is layered within the building. Justice Sachs was instrumental in the selection of the extensive and impressive art collection at Constitution Hill, the seat of the Constitutional Court.

"Each area of the Court developed by the architects was presented to the judges for comment. We evolved a principle that the more the design touched on matters of intimate concern to the judges, the stronger our say would be, to the point event of a veto or an insistence on things of absolute immediate concern. The more the design related to the building generally and the public space of the building, the greater would be the discretion allowed the architects. So I recall a discussion on the Foyer. The then Deputy Chief Justice, Pius Langa, was quite alarmed at seeing the angled pillars. Was that appropriate for a court? Some other of my colleagues were also discountenanced.Well, this was one of those issues where the architects dug in their heels and, perhaps reluctantly, the judges agreed to the design. And of course now we can't imagine the building without the Pius Pillars.  - Justice Albie Sachs

About Justice Albie Sachs
On turning six, during World War II, Ablie Sachs received a card from his father expressing the wish he would grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation.

His career in human rights activism started at the age of seventeen, when as a second year law student at the University of Cape Town, he took part in the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. Three years later he attended the Congress of the People of Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was adopted. He started practice as an advocate at the Cape Bar aged 21. The bulk of his work involved defending people charged under racist statutes and repressive security laws. Many faced the death sentence. He himself was raided by the security police, subjected to banning orders restricting movement and eventually placed in solitary confinement without trial for two prolonged spells of detention.

In 1966 he went into exile. After spending eleven years studying and teaching law in England he worked for a further eleven years in Mozambique as a law professor and legal researcher. In 1988 he was blown up by a bomb placed in his car in Maputo by South African security agents, losing an arm and the sight in one eye.

During the 1980s working closely with Olifer Tambo, leader of the ANC in exile, he helped draft the organization's Code of Conduct, as well as its statutes. After recovering from the bomb he devoted himself full-time to preparations for a new democratic Constitute for South Africa. In 1990 he returned home and as a member of the Constitutional Committee and the National Executive of the ANC took an active part in the negotiations which led to South Africa becoming a constitutional democracy. After the first democratic election in 1994 he was appointed by President Nelson Mandela to serve on the newly established Constitutional Court.

In addition to his work on the Court, he has traveled to many countries sharing South African experience in healing divided societies. He has also been engaged in the sphere of art and architecture, and played an active role in the development of the Constitutional Court building and its art collection on the site of the Old Fort Prison in Johannesburg.

Justice Sachs gained international attention in 2005 as the author of the Court's holding in the case of Minister of Home Affairs v. Fourie, in which the Court overthrew South Africa's statute defining marriage to be between one man and one woman as a violation of the Constitution's general mandate for equal protection for all and its specific mandate against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Justice Sachs is also recognized for the development of the differentiation between constitutional rights in three different degrees or generation of rights.

In 1991 he won the Alan Paton Award for his book Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter. The book chronicles his response to his 1988 car bombing by Apartheid government agents in Maputo, Mozambique. He is also the author of Justice in South Africa (1974), The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs (1976), Sexism and the Law (1979) and most recently, The Free Diary of Albie Sachs (2004).