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Albie Sachs, 'The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law'

OUP, 2009; ISBN 978 0 199 571 79 6; 320pp; £19.99

As a young South African lawyer, Albie Sachs defended his clients on charges brought under apartheid laws, was detained and tortured with sleep deprivation, went into exile, and lost an arm and an eye when South African security agents put a bomb in his car.

Following the end of apartheid, Sachs was appointed to the constitutional court by Nelson Mandela. This book is the fascinating story of an activist and lawyer given the opportunities, first to help write his country’s new constitution and then, as a judge on the constitutional court, to interpret it.

Sachs records some of the judgments he has delivered in cases concerning equality, discrimination and social and economic rights. He discusses the decision that destitute people have the right to be provided basic shelter by the state, the ruling that the rights of children have to be taken into account before a mother can be sentenced to imprisonment and the ground-breaking judgment which requires statutory provision for same-sex marriages (and not simply civil partnerships).

Sachs weaves together the personal, the national and the professional, for example in his discussion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC has been criticised for the amnesty offered to those who testified to it, which meant that victims and their families were unable to sue for compensation.

The constitutional court had to rule on the legality of that amnesty. Meanwhile he tells the story of how he met one of the operatives responsible for the bombing of his car, who testified to the commission.

Anyone who campaigned against apartheid, as well as those with an interest in using the law and the courts to campaign for human rights and social justice is likely to find this an interesting read. Highly recommended.