Sackler Lecture draws parallels between human rights struggles

Sachs and Ginzberg sat for a question and answer session after watching a documentary film detailing Albie's experiences as a South African human rights activists. (Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

Sachs and Ginzberg sat for a question and answer session after watching a documentary film detailing Albie's experiences as a South African human rights activists. (Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

The Sackler lectures that take place in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center are designed to be about human rights issues. When former South African Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs took the stage Monday evening in the Konover Auditorium, he said that for a good portion of his life, he was not a human rights activist. He was a freedom fighter.

The difference, he claimed, was that human rights activists work from the outside. Freedom fighters strive for justice from within, which is what Sachs did for the majority of his life in South Africa. Freedom fighter may seem like a high-intensity word, but for Americans engaging in struggles today against the likes of partisanship and white nationalism, perhaps “freedom fighter” is an appropriate term.

The discussion that took place Monday evening was scheduled to take place last year. Sachs was meant to visit UConn with filmmaker Abby for a screening and discussion of the film “Soft Vengeance,” the documentary Ginzberg made about Sachs. The pair were unable to make it and so the event was postponed until Monday. What may seem like an unfortunate turn of events, however, made the lecture more relevant, which Dr. Glenn Mitoma, Director of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, touched upon while introducing the guest speakers and the film.

“I am desperate to have this conversation right now,” Mitoma said, after paying tribute to the lives lost 16years ago to the day in the catastrophe at the World Trade Center. An event that seems, in retrospect, to have pulled the nation together stands in stark contrast to the extreme partisanship and tension of politics today.

In such a contentious time, students and community members alike can draw parallels between Sachs’s struggle and the struggle they are facing at home. Ginzberg’s film tells the story of Sachs, a white male in apartheid-ridden South Africa, from the time he was a 17-year-old boy trying to make a political statement by sitting on a non-white bench, through his time as a justice on a court that made landmark decisions to abolish the death penalty and legalize same-sex marriages.

In between, Sachs worked for the African National Congress alongside freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, served two sentences in solitary confinement without a trial, lost an arm in a car bomb explosion intended to kill him and helped write the Constitution now governing the Republic of South Africa.

The conclusion of the film was greeted with a standing ovation from the audience in the Konover Auditorium. Audience members were impressed not only with the life story of Sachs, but also, as they stated later during the question and answer segment of the lecture, with the manner in which it was told by Ginzberg.

“Cultural change requires cultural work,” Mitoma said before the screening, emphasizing that audience members could learn not only about perseverance against hardship in the name of justice, but also about how art and film can play a large role.

One of the audience members who later asked a question of Sachs introduced his topic by explaining how he believed that change within a nation comes in two stages: a legislative shift and a cultural shift. The legislative shift comes when new laws are put into place, but the cultural shift happens later, when people realize they actually have to start listening to the laws. This second stage is furthered by the efforts of individuals like Ginzberg, who share the story behind the change.

The students in attendance gained a lot form listening to Sachs and Ginzberg.

“The most impressive thing to me, I think, was honestly how awe-inspiring some people can be,” first semester English major Sammy Van Volkenburg explained.  “To go through so many trials and to never lose faith.”

Some of what Sachs has done can be helpful to students in an even more specific way.

“The most interesting thing was the answer to the question about the death penalty,” graduate law student Movitz Winckler, an exchange student from Germany, said. “It’s also a question in Germany to justify the abolishment of the death penalty.”

The United States is a very different country from South Africa. The struggles in the U.S. are different from the struggles in South Africa. This doesn’t mean that those fighting for rights in the western hemisphere can’t learn from those fighting for rights in the eastern hemisphere, or anywhere else in the world, which is what the Sackler lecture series is all about: bringing in internationally recognized individuals to speak about their experiences with human rights so that all involved in the struggle, human rights activists and freedom fighters alike, can work off each others’ success.


Alex Houdeshell is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu.