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Dullah Omar Lecture 2014

Dullah Omar Lecture: Albie Sachs on Quiet Leadership and Hope for a New Generation

“People think of a revolutionary as a fiery, tempestuous person, with burning eyes and powerful convictions. But Oliver Tambo proved that a true revolutionary can be someone who's warm and embracing and civil, even to enemies. You can be a revolutionary and you can be quiet. You can be profound and radical and yet civil and moral at the same time.”

Those words were spoken by former Constitutional Court Judge, Albie Sachs, delivering the 9th Annual Dullah Omar Lecture at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on Tuesday 25 March 2014 - a lecture entitled “Speaking to Oliver Tambo's Ghost: Twenty Years into Democracy”.

Since their establishment in 2006, the Dullah Omar Memorial Lectures have taken place annually, held in honour of the late Advocate, Dullah Omar, the founding director of UWC's Community Law Centre and the former minister of Justice – a man who believed strongly in engaging on the big issues of the day. Previous speakers have included former President Thabo Mbeki, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, and the late former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson.

This year's speaker, Judge Albie Sachs, was involved for several decades in the anti-apartheid movement, and was appointed by former president Nelson Mandela as South Africa's first Constitutional Court judge in 1994. During his 15 years of service, Judge Sachs contributed to ground-breaking legal decisions such as the Home Affairs vs Fourie judgement, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage in South Africa.

Judge Sachs spoke about his friendship with OR Tambo, and the kind of leadership Tambo provided: methodical, civil and inclusive, even in a time of great adversity, heading an organisation that had no state powers but that had to contend with the powers of a state that was brutal in its methods.

“OR was not the kind of leader who worried about ethical decisions,” said Sachs, “but who never thought he could answer them all. He never sent out official notices to be obeyed. He felt these matters needed to be discussed by the whole movement, to come up with a solution to the benefit of all.”

While admiring how far South Africa had come, Sachs also noted a growing disillusionment about politics throughout the country. “We have a strong press, and a strong judiciary, and people speak their minds – it's a very free and open society. And yet there's a sense of disenchantment that leads me to think back on the Biblical quote, 'What profiteth a man who gains the whole world, and loses his soul?' Well, what profiteth a movement to attain the majority, and lose its own soul?”

He urged young people not to give in to despair, imagining how troubling this might be to a man like OR Tambo who provided hope and encouragement in circumstances much darker than those faced by most South Africans today. South Africans may face problems, but South Africans can also find solutions – as we did when we moved from having a terrible restriction on the furnishing of ARVs, to the most advanced and well-organised ARV programme in the world. And this would simply not have happened if South Africans had thrown up their hands in despair.

“When young people ask me for my advice, I tell them my advice is that they don't listen to my advice,” he said. “We don't need another Dullah Omar. We need someone who, like Dullah Omar, finds their own inspirations, with different backgrounds, from different generations, finding different solutions. Just get enough young people together, give them opportunities and hope, and we can create a genuinely new spirit of social revolution in South Africa.”

Listen to Judge Sachs’ speech here.