The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter

The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter

by Albie Sachs

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On April 7, 1988, Albie Sachs, an activist South African lawyer and a leading member of the ANC, was car-bombed in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, by agents of South Africa’s security forces. His right arm was blown off, and he lost sight in one eye. This intimate and moving account of his recovery traces the gradual recuperation of his broken body and his

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On April 7, 1988, Albie Sachs, an activist South African lawyer and a leading member of the ANC, was car-bombed in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, by agents of South Africa’s security forces. His right arm was blown off, and he lost sight in one eye. This intimate and moving account of his recovery traces the gradual recuperation of his broken body and his triumphant reentry into the world, where his dream of soft vengeance was realized with the achievement of democracy in South Africa. This book captures the spirit of a remarkable man: his enormous optimism, his commitment to social justice, and his joyous wonder at the life that surrounds him. A new preface and epilogue reflect on the making of Abby Ginzberg’s documentary film titled Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa. (For information about the film, see

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University of California Press
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Edition description:
First Edition, 1, With a New Preface and Epilogue
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5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

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The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter

By Albie Sachs


Copyright © 2014 Albie Sachs
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95944-6



Oh shit. Everything has abruptly gone dark, I am feeling strange and cannot see anything. The beach, I am going to the beach, I packed a frosty beer for after my run, something is wrong. Oh shit, I must have banged my head, like I used to do when climbing Table Mountain in Cape Town, dreaming of the struggle, and cracking my cranium against an overhang. It will go away, I must just be calm and wait. Watered the tropical pot-plants, stared at the ten heads on the giant African sculpture in my beautiful apartment. Oh shit, how can I be so careless? The darkness is not clearing, this is something serious, a terrible thing is happening to me, I am swirling, I cannot steady myself as I wait for consciousness and light to return. I feel a shuddering punch against the back of my neck, and then what seems like another one. The sense of threat gets stronger and stronger, I am being dominated, overwhelmed. I have to fight, I have to resist. I can feel arms coming from behind me, pulling at me under my shoulders. I am being kidnapped, they have come from Pretoria to drag me over the border and interrogate me and lock me up. This is the moment we have all been waiting for, the few ANC members still working in Mozambique, with dread and yet with a weird kind of eagerness.

'Leave me,' I yell out. 'Leave me.'

I jerk my shoulders and thrash my arms as violently as I can. I always wondered how I would react, whether I would fight physically, risking death, or whether I would go quietly and rely on my brain and what moral courage I had to see me through.

'Leave me alone, leave me alone,' I demand violently, aware that I am shouting in both English and Portuguese, the official language of this newly independent state where I have been living for a decade. I've forgotten my Afrikaans after twenty years in exile, I'm screaming for my life yet with some control, some politeness, since after all I am a middle-aged lawyer in a public place.

'I would rather die here, leave me, I'd rather die here.'

I feel a sudden surge of elation and strength as I struggle, making an immense muscular effort to pull myself free. I might be an intellectual but at this critical moment without time to plan or think I am fighting bravely and with the courage of the youth of Soweto even though the only physical violence I have personally known in my life was as a schoolboy being tackled carrying a rugby ball. I hear voices coming from behind me, urgent, nervous voices not talking but issuing and accepting commands, and they are referring to me.

The darkness is total, but still I hear tense staccato speech.

'Lift him up, put him there.'

I am not a him, I am me, you cannot just cart me around like a suitcase. But I am unable to struggle any more, I just have to go along and accept what happens, my will has gone.

We are travelling fast, the way is bumpy, how can they leave me in such discomfort, if they are going to kidnap me at least they could use a vehicle with better springs. I have no volition, I cannot decide anything or even move any part of me. But I have awareness, I think, therefore I am. The consciousness fades and returns, swirls away and comes back, I am lying down like a bundle, there is a point in my head that is thinking, and then oblivion and then awareness again, no thought related to action, but passive acknowledgement that my body is being transported somewhere, that I exist, even if without self-determination of any sort. I wonder if we have reached the South African border yet, I wonder who my captors are, what their faces look like, do they have names? This darkness is so confusing.

More urgent voices, speaking with rapid energy, treating me as an object, to be lifted and carried and moved this way and that ... I feel the muscles and movements of people all around me, above me, at my side, behind me. Nobody engages me as a person, speaks with head directed towards me, communicates with me. I exist as a mass, I have physicality, but no personality, I am simply the object of other people's decision. They point their mouths to each other, never towards my head, I am totally present, the centre of all the energetic talking, but I am never included in the discussion, my will, my existence is being violated, I am banished even while in the group.

All is very still and calm and without movement or voices or muscular activity. I am wrapped in complete darkness and tranquillity. If I am dead I am not aware of it, if I am alive I am not aware of it, I have no awareness at all, not of myself, not of my surroundings, not of anyone or of anything.

'Albie ...' through the darkness a voice, speaking not about me but to me, and using my name and without that terrible urgency of all those other voices '... Albie, this is Ivo Garrido speaking to you ...' the voice is sympathetic and affectionate, I know Ivo, he is an outstanding young surgeon and a friend '... you are in the Maputo Central Hospital ... your arm is in a lamentable condition ...' he uses a delicate Portuguese word to describe my arm, how tactful the Mozambican culture is compared to the English one, I must ask him later what that word is '... we are going to operate and you must face the future with courage.'

A glow of joy of complete satisfaction and peace envelops me, I am in the hands of Frelimo, of the Mozambican Government, I am safe.

'What happened?' I am asking the question into the darkness, my will has been activated in response to hearing Ivo's voice, I have a social existence once more, I am an alive part of humanity.

A voice answers, close to my ears, I think it is a woman's, '... a car bomb ...' and I drift back, smiling inside, into nothingness.


I am elsewhere and other. There is a cool crisp sheet on me, I am lying on a couch, aware that I have a body and that I can feel and think and even laugh to myself, and everything seems light and clean and I have a great sense of happiness and curiosity. This is the time to explore and rediscover myself. What has happened to me, what is left of me, what is the damage? I am feeling wonderful and thinking easily in word thoughts and not just sensations, but maybe there is internal destruction ...

Let me see ... A joke comes back to me, a Jewish joke from the days when we Jews still told jokes to ward off the pains of oppression and humiliation, from when I was still a young student and my mountain-climbing friend had a new joke for me each week, and I smile to myself as I tell myself the joke, and feel happy and alive because I am telling myself a joke, the one about Himie Cohen falling off a bus, and as he gets up he makes what appears to be a large sign of the cross over his body.

A friend is watching in astonishment. 'Himie,' he says, 'I didn't know you were a Catholic.'

'What do you mean, Catholic?' Himie answers. 'Spectacles ... testicles ... wallet and watch.'

My arm is free and mobile and ready to respond to my will. It is on the left side and I decide to alter the order a little, I am sure Himie would not mind in the circumstances. Testicles ... My hand goes down. I am wearing nothing under the sheet, it is easy to feel my body. My penis is all there, my good old cock (I'm alone with myself and can say the word) that has involved me in so much happiness and so much despair and will no doubt lead me up hill and down dale in the future as well, and my balls, one, two, both in place, perhaps I should call them testes since I am in hospital. I bend my elbow, how lovely it is to be able to want again, and then be able to do what I want; I move my hand up my chest, what delicious self-determination, what a noble work of art is man ... Wallet ... My heart is there, the ribs over it seem intact, the blood will pump, the centre of my physical being, the part you take for granted is okay, I am fine, I will live and live robustly. Spectacles ... I range my fingers over my forehead, and cannot feel any craters or jagged pieces, and I know I am thinking clearly, the darkness is now feather-light and clean, unlike the heavy, opaque blackness of before. Watch ... my hand creeps over my shoulder and slides down my upper arm, and suddenly there is nothing there ... so I have lost an arm, Ivo did not say which one, or even that they were going to cut it off, though I suppose it was implicit in his words, and it's the right one, since it is my left arm that is doing all the feeling ... So I have lost an arm, that's all, I've lost an arm, that's all. They tried to kill me, to extinguish me completely, but I have only lost an arm. Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch. I joke, therefore I am.


So this is what it's like. I came close to death and survived. I am in the intensive care ward, there are tubes running into me like I've seen in the films and it always looked so uncomfortable, how could you bear to have a tube going into your nose or into your arm? And yet it is not difficult at all, the whole body feels slightly odd and the tubes are just part of the general strangeness. I know that time has passed, but have no sense of how long it has been; when you sleep, your body clock keeps going, but not when you are being operated on. Somebody told me that the operation lasted seven hours, that is how they measure ops, and I remember the sense of pride in his voice. They explored all of me, looking for damage everywhere, taking out scores of pieces of shrapnel from all over my body and head, and I was proud of my complicity in this major surgical enterprise.

And now, is it the same day or the next or the next? The darkness has continued, and I suppose I am quite heavily drugged, and I just do not know how long I have been here. I remember Ivo talking to me once, chatting to me with the intimacy of a friend, re-establishing a personal relationship after having cut up my body, and giving me his personal version of the bomb story that has apparently stirred all Maputo, telling me he heard a tremendous explosion shortly after he had got up, and that he dressed quickly and rushed to the hospital without waiting to be called because he knew from the violence of the bang that there would be victims, and then when he got to the hospital he saw someone being carried in and looked closer and was shocked to see it was me in my bathing trunks. And then there was Anatoli, with the gentlest hands of any man I have known. I wonder what he looks like — from his name and the way he speaks Portuguese I guess that he is one of the Soviet doctors at the hospital — all I know is that he peels the bandages off with lovely delicacy, speaking softly as he dresses the wounds on my right side and then winding the bandages on again with equal fingerly kindness.

Someone has given me a rundown of my injuries: it seems there has been no injury to internal organs and no brain damage (I could have told them that, spectacles ... testicles ...) and that apart from the loss of the arm I have four broken ribs, a fractured heel on my right leg and a severed nerve in my left leg, lots of shrapnel wounds, ruptured eardrums and, as for my eyes, they would know as soon as they took the dressing off which would be quite soon, all in all a miracle, if you had seen my car, it is still there, everybody is driving past or walking by, and nobody believes I could have escaped alive, it is just a heap of crumpled metal with two beach chairs peeking out the back.

From time to time I allow the fingers of my left hand to trace the slope of my right shoulder. The whole of that side is heavily bandaged and I do not want to press too hard, but I can feel the shape of the upper part of the arm, and then before I can reach the elbow, the bandages turn inwards and there is nothing more. If I did not feel with my left hand, I would not know that I had lost my right arm, it still seems to be there, it exists in sensation even if not in reality. What puzzles me is something else, and the doctors do not seem to have an explanation for it, and that is, why, after having been through what must have been a terrible experience, and lying in complete darkness with a mass of fractures and wounds, I am feeling so wonderful.


Everybody is so kind, so gentle, so warm. The voices are friendly and supportive, telling me that they are about to remove the dressings from my eyes, would I lie still, please? By now I am used to fingers deftly placing and removing bandages. My contribution is simply to lie still, and I do it with all my heart and soul, there has never been a patient so good at lying still ... I hear a murmur above me, from an unfamiliar voice, it is a woman speaking, and she is saying: first the right side ... I feel the softness of the dressing being lifted, and there right above me filling the whole screen of what I can see — and I can see, I can see, as I knew I would be able to do — is the large, round, serious face of Dr Olga.

I get a slight shock seeing her there looking down on me, since only about ten days ago we had a small altercation when I went to the ophthalmic section of the hospital to get my eyes tested for reading glasses. There was an enormous crowd there, and nowhere to sit, and I tried to push my way forward, and she always sent me back, we were both tense with overwork, and now I want to apologize to her, but from the look of immense tenderness and concern she is giving me, it is not necessary.

Now the left eye, she says, and lifts the material from that side of my face. She covers my left eye, and I can see perfectly. She covers my right eye, and I can see nothing. So I have lost the sight of my left eye, but it does not seem to matter since I can see quite well with the other one. Dr Olga is speaking to me, she does not seem to be angry like the last time: We will put drops in the left eye and hopefully it will recover by itself, this is not the time to intervene. I smile and lift my left arm to take her hand in mine.

I have to twist my wrist to meet the palm of her right hand, I suppose all my handshakes will be a bit back to front from now on, but it is not difficult and more than made up for by the pleasure of being able to direct my movements and convey my own emotions to another human being.

Everybody around me is smiling, and I can feel that I have a great grin on my face, which must look funny in the midst of all my bandages. Some of the faces are new to me, some I recognize. Anatoli has dark hair and a soft face to go with his soft hands. He somehow looks more normal and less medical than I had imagined, and tells me that soon he will be replacing the dressings. A man introduces himself to me as a Captain of Security, and assures me that he or someone else will be there day and night to attend to any of my requests, and that there are many people who want to visit me and we should agree on the names ... He is beaming, and speaks in a gentle way so as not to alarm me. The security aspect does not worry me at all, even though it should, considering that one of our guys was assassinated while in a hospital bed in nearby Lesotho, and another was almost certainly given poison while in this very hospital. I feel immune, I have survived the blast and they cannot get me now, it would be too obvious, too monstrous. I respond with equal warmth, wondering who the persons are who want to see me and if Lucia is among them, and how I would feel if I were to see her again.


I nearly died, I nearly died, but I did not. The movies get it all wrong, they always try to show the approach of death through visual imagery, when the visual world is the first to go and the last to come back, and what I had was an entering and receding aural and emotional universe, a tiny and insecure point of perception in my head, a flickering fragment of ego, and a certain awareness of sensationless mass. There was light darkness and heavy darkness and a complete oblivion that had no texture but was simply total. I could hear much of the time, able to pick up the emotional tone of the voices long after I had lost the significance of the words; perhaps it is true that deep meaning exists more on the emotional level than on the intellectual.

I resented being carried around like a sack of potatoes (in Mozambique a rare commodity, a sack of potatoes would have been well treated), it reminds me of what the kids used to say jokingly to me at school: Sachs, bags, bottles and rags. If the doctors ever want to know, I will tell them that it is important to speak warmly and calmly to the concussed patient, even if he or she appears to be unconscious, to give him or her orientations as to place and what is happening, and a sense of being supported and loved, if doctors are permitted to love. I wonder if my eyes were open, if I was speaking? I must ask somebody some day.

As children we used to have real, deep arguments, everything in the world depended on their outcome, did God exist and when you were on the point of dying did you have visions of the Lord or of heaven or hell, and did you begin praying in your last moments as great agnostics or non-believers were supposed to have done? Now I am lying peacefully in my bed, enjoying the chance to answer the questions that lay tucked away in my semi-consciousness all these decades, a little disappointed that the experience was in fact so banal. Perhaps you end up where you started off; if you believe, you can recall a sense that some guiding power was with you all the time, if you are a non-believer, you remember that there were no visions of the hereafter, no sense that you had a spirit apart from your body, there was no religious imagery or sensation at all. Somehow it no longer seems so vital to define oneself philosophically, there are believers who are simply pious and empty of any warm religiosity, and non-believers who have deeply spiritual natures ...


Excerpted from The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter by Albie Sachs. Copyright © 2014 Albie Sachs. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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