Albert Louis Sachs was born in Johannesburg in 1935. His father, Emil “Solly” Sachs, and his mother, Ray Ginsberg, had both immigrated from Lithuania as children, when the country was still part of the Russian Empire. Under the Tsarist regime, Jews were subject to constant discrimination and outbursts of violence…a memory which informed the Sachs family’s view of their new home country, where black South Africans were denied many of the rights they (as white immigrants) had newly acquired. Both Emil and Ray joined South Africa’s communist youth movement in the 1920s. At the time, the CPSA was the only multiracial Party in South Africa that advocated for racial equality.
Solly became the leader of the Garment Workers Union, and remained a highly visible labour leader throughout his life. The example of his political activism was a powerful influence on Albie, who remembers that on his 6th birthday, his father gave him a card, saying he hoped Albie would grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation.
Growing up, Albie lived with his mother in Cape Town, where she was secretary to Moses Kotane, a leader of both the Communist Party, and the ANC. Unlike most white South Africans from his generation, Albie grew up seeing black and white adults interact as equals, and learned to judge all men and women as individuals.
“Our Jewishness, to the extent that it existed, had much more to do with temperament, board values, enjoying a good argument, humour, a certain kind of vitality, having expectations of life…”
At the age of 15, Albie enrolled at the University of Cape Town, where he joined the Modern Youth Society — a group dedicated to free thought, progressive politics, and an egalitarian, multiracial society. Albie credited the MYS for facilitating his entry into radical politics, and claimed that from these institutions, members came to identify as South Africans, rather than as Jews. In later years, during his career as a lawyer, Albie defended mostly black clients and resistors of the repressive apartheid laws. He also attended the Congress of the People at Kliptown in 1955, where the Freedom Charter was adopted.
Albie spent the decade after 1966 in exile in England with his wife, Stephanie Kemp, an SACP member and Anti-Apartheid activist who had grown up in an Afrikaans family. In England, Albie became a well-known face of the South African opposition. He moved to Mozambique in 1977, but during this time, the South African government, increasingly hampered by international sanctions against its racist policies, was lashing out at its opponents. Consequently, in April 1988, a car bomb planted by the South African security services exploded, killing a passerby and leaving Sachs severely wounded. He ultimately recovered and returned to South Africa, where he played a prominent role in effecting South Africa’s transition to a multiracial democracy.
Detail from the cover of Garment Workers in Action, a book written by Emil “Solly” Sachs about the history of garment workers in South Africa, 1952. (SAHO)
Photograph of Albie Sachs and his wife, Stephanie Kemp, after his release from prison in the 1960s. (Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)
Photograph of Albie Sachs acting in his capacity as an attorney during the Congress of the People at Kliptown in 1955. (Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)
From left: Albie Sachs, Denis Goldberg and Ruth First. Click on the the faces to read more about them.