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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

27 Sep 2001: Sachs, Albie

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POM     Albie, what I'd like to do for whatever time is at your disposal is really to talk about the impact of the bombing of the Twin Trade Towers in New York, the loss of life, the hijacking of planes, the Taliban, the case for Bin Laden, the manner in which the whole subject is being talked about, interpretations of it being put forward and what your own reflections are on it and I will begin with maybe this question: in extreme Islam they look upon the United States as the great Satan, evil, Americans and people in the west look upon the Taliban or the people who perpetrated these acts, whoever they are, as evil. Whose evil are we talking about?

AS     I don't have reflections but I do have emotions and they are extremely contradictory in all sorts of ways. I love New York. It's a very favourite city of mine where I've lived intensely and I remember how astonished I was when I first went there at seeing it as a third world city, as an international city. You really see the whole of humanity there. I loved the World Trade Centre buildings. On most of my visits I would make a point of going to the top for the view, the spectacle, but the sense of admiration at the builders who constructed that extraordinary building. I would think of them out on the girders, risking so much to complete the edifice. In my days as an exile wandering from country to country trying to get support for us in South Africa I can still recall being at the top of the tower and saying these extraordinary people who built the tower, it was never theirs. They could put it up for the owners of big companies and so on to occupy and for tourists to visit but they would never have it but one day the day will come when the workers who put up buildings like this inherit those buildings. Well the world didn't work out that way, that vision I had of the people who produced these marvellous products of their labour recovering them one day. It didn't work out but in a very bitter and terrible way the revenge of alienation did take place. The capacity of people to feel that their lives had been so infringed and damaged that they're cut off from the wonders of the world, excluded from it, projected by it and not reclaiming the world but destroying the very thing that they see propelling them and glorying in it in a bitter way has, I've come to say, vindicated, has fulfilled in a totally perverse way the image that I had when I would stand on those towers.

     There's a strange emotion, I think, that all of us have when we see a building imploding. That's why they show it on TV, the dynamite put there and this colossal construction just comes down and it's the fascination in seeing structure fall and it's not just the physical structure, it's the structure of power, control, ownership that is seen to collapse. When it's done deliberately then it's to replace it with a bigger structure, more powerful. In this case that astonishing collapse, that physical collapse wasn't to that end, it was through rage, anger, but anger that gets converted into organised - planned for determination to achieve an objective. I belonged to a struggle where you planned for the long term and your emotion gets dispersed, it gets caught up in the immediate act, in being part of something larger than yourself and you don't have rage and anger and bitterness at each moment of the day in everything that you do. It becomes almost ideological, it becomes part and parcel of who you are and I envisage this whole grouping of people, it's not simply that they're animated by religious zeal and fervour, I think that's far too glib and easy, they're part and parcel of an enterprise, they're engaged, they see themselves as volunteers.

POM     Sorry, they see themselves as?

AS     Volunteers, they're in a struggle, they're working with others. An enormous meaning, a sense of meaning is given to their lives and to their activity, their sense of self. The glory as envisaged in terms of Allah is just part and parcel of it. I don't think it explains the source. I don't think it explains the motivation. I don't think it explains the content of what people do. I think it is an important ingredient that covers everything that's done, that provides the language, the symbolism, the imagery, the sense of hope, the identification, but I see it very much as people involved in a total and deadly enterprise for what they would see as glorious ends and I would say any response has to understand that. That doesn't in any way explain what the response should be. Hitler was involved in an enterprise of that kind which he thought was glorious, ennobling for the future, for eternity and it was the most terrible destruction of a bitter century as a result of all that. I think that that understanding is important in terms of the kind of response that's necessary. It's not just a gang that one's dealing with in the way that you deal with gang networks, information, leads, interceptions, things of that kind. Clearly that might play a role. We, in the days of the struggle in the ANC, were treated by Pretoria as a gang and they used the methods of combating gangsterism to try and destroy us and they failed. They caused enormous damage, we lost many people and we suffered a lot but they failed because simply seeing it as a gang didn't produce the requisite results. They didn't understand our motivation, our sources of strength, our connection with the community and connections with the world in general.

     When I watch on TV, which I've been doing fairly constantly, at first obsessively, now more under control, the news reports from the US I respond with enormous ambivalence. It's part of my confusion. The service that was held just a few days ago in the stadium

POM     Yankee Stadium.

AS     The Yankee Stadium, so much of it was New York, warm people with energy, with love, with grace, naïve, expressive, that wonderful New York that I respond to every time. I felt so proud of the way they responded and my connection with them and it was so varied. I am sure people would plan and organise it, as somebody called it 'bomber crew', one of everybody, but it didn't have to be planned. It just came out spontaneously. You look at who the leading figures are, you look at who the religious groupings are, you look at who were lost in the building and who the families were and you see that diversity and representivity, it's there quite spontaneously and I really responded to that.

     The part that made me withdraw was to me a kind of shallow, dogged, bureaucratised anger that came from some of the participants, the military, rehearsed speeches full of a kind of rhetoric of a great power. I felt far less sympathy for that. I felt far less moved by that and I felt the more you get into that kind of rhetoric, the rhetoric of power, the more you're setting up the scene for a simple ding-dong: who's Satan is the worst; who has the greatest ingenuity and striking capacity? And it becomes an endless spiral sequence of action, counter-action, retaliation, retaliation for the retaliation and I speak in this respect very strongly as a South African we broke out of that and it didn't just come about. Many of us, particularly in the liberation struggle, but we found counterparts on the other side as well, consciously went out of our way to break the cycle of violence and counter-violence. Even although we knew we would win in the end if it was really just violence, we would win in the sense of defeating the enemy but we would inherit a ruined country and the cost in terms not just of human life but of rancour, hatred, destroyed productive capacity would be so enormous that it just wouldn't be worth it. We won because we created a place for our enemies, a place of dignity. We gave them hope, a future, a sense of belonging and not simply as an act of generosity and benevolence but an act of enlargement of ourselves, who we were, and an act of security for ourselves. And it worked. I wouldn't say we've resolved everything, far from it, we have huge problems but we broke that terrible cycle and we re-established a whole different way of doing things. It was in the end through negotiations, through respect for orderly proceedings, through disarming the extreme right wing, which had to be done, but disarming them not simply through superior power, isolating them and giving them an alternative to fighting to the death that we achieved the resolution of our whole situation. Resolution in the sense of breaking the cycle of violence, not in the sense of solving our problems but changing the whole format in which problem solving has to be achieved.

     In the case of the US, and I'm just thinking as I'm speaking now

POM     Talk now as if I were President Bush and if I had rang you and said many people said that you're a wise man and I'm trying to listen to wise men, how would you advise me?

AS     Spontaneously that's how my argument was drifting towards. I think the central focus has to be not on human power but on human dignity on all sides and one has to restore the dignity of those who died, their families, people who lost. It was random, in the Towers, in the planes. One has to restore a sense of tranquillity for people going about their business in general. That's absolutely vital. One does that by insisting on the processes of law, international law, internal law, constitutionalism, respect for human rights. It's not a tussle between force and human rights. If the US finds itself repaying even Bin Laden in kind that will be his biggest victory, his greatest triumph. If the US both in the methods it uses and in demonising the enemy and in allowing Islamophobia to develop ends up polarising the world in that way it will be even Bin Laden's greatest triumph and the biggest defeat for the US. So this is the time to be very cool, very considered, very measured, not simply in terms of getting allies and isolating the enemy in a technical sense but in summoning up the sense of humanity of people throughout the world, getting them not on your side, being on this side where you happen to be, where they happen to be.

POM     In a sense are you saying that Bin Laden's (if it is Bin Laden, it's not been established) but let's call the person Bin Laden for the sake of this that his greatest victory could be creating a climate of response in the US and other parts of the world that would destroy the values for which those people think they stand, that would destroy their own values?

AS     Absolutely, absolutely. The victory would be in a moral sense of saying that when it comes to fighting for your cause, which you define yourself, any method goes and the winner is the one who stands on the top of the mountain, raises the flag at the end and says I've won, and defeats and destroys everybody else. It would be a victory for envisaging triumph consisting of simply executing, beheading in the old days it used to be beheading beheading the enemy and carrying the head of the enemy in triumph through the streets and there's a current, a trend in the US that is evocative of that. I don't mean literally that they will do it but it's metaphorically what they want to do, is to cut off his head, put it on a pike, grab it by the hair and take it through the streets of US and say, you see, we've won, we've destroyed the enemy. And that will be a terrible defeat not just for the US but for all humanity.

     If it also provokes mass emotional responses on both sides, drawing a clear bright line between goodies and baddies that will be another victory for, we'll call it Bin Laden. If it provokes a battle between Christianity and Islam unfortunately, I'm sure quite unconsciously evoked by the use of the word 'crusade', that would be a terrible tragedy and cause enormous destruction and polarisation and not just between the Middle East and the west but there are Islamic groups all over the west, there are Christian groups all over the east and that kind of interchange between faiths, between peoples, between cultures, the good side of globalisation is destroyed. So these are all terrible dangers that lurk and they can be influenced by decision making. There is no inevitability about any of these things.

     For what it's worth, when Colin Powell is speaking I don't feel quite as alarmed, and it's not just body language, it's a vision in a sense, he's a soldier, he's a politician, he's fighting for his side, he represents it, but he does it with a tone and a kind of a vision that is not dedicated to polarising the world and it's not saying you're either with me or against me. One wants to be able to say, sure we're with you overwhelmingly, we feel your pain. We want to be part and parcel of the recovery but it doesn't mean that we have to do everything that you want in the way that you want, to whom you want.

     Now speaking as a judge, as a lawyer, I feel more strongly than ever the importance of respecting international law, using international institutions, using the United Nations. If these instruments are incapable you don't throw away the instruments, you perfect them, you sharpen them. If the UN is not fulfilling its full potential you don't abandon it, you reform it and restructure it in a way that it can fulfil its full mandate and then the world comes out strongly, international law comes out stronger. I speak not as a lawyer's lawyer, I'm not a lawyer's lawyer, I'm for law and justice. All these things are in the balance. It's less dramatic than it was in the early days when all one heard was engines and striking. It's been a much more considered response. It may be grounded not on considerations of humanity and philosophy but on considerations of tactics. But whatever the reason, and often humanity and tactics go well together, whatever the reason there's been a certain texture given to the US response that wasn't there early on that makes one hope that it's not going to be a simply use of massive force by people who are safe because they are high up in the sky dropping bombs or far away simply launching missiles which only increases the antagonism, the rage, the sense of - well if they can hit us with weaponry being absolutely safe up there in the skies or on the aircraft carriers, the only way we can hit back at them is through hijacking planes and so on, and so the cycle continues.

POM     Coming back to the question of the word 'evil' is used by the Taliban, "The evil west, the great Satan", and the word 'evil', of course has been used repeatedly with regard to the hijackers and what the Taliban is attempting to do to impose its moral values on the rest of the world because of the treatment of the Palestinians in the Middle East. Unless the Palestinian question is settled it's like anyone who's with Israel, anyone who is not with the Palestinians is a target. It's like George Bush saying, "If you're not with us you're against us". In an odd way they're both preaching the very same kind of language but when we come to the question of evil, you mentioned Hitler earlier, how did his vision become at some point where one would draw a line and say this man represents evil?

AS     I don't find the term 'evil' useful at all. It's partly I don't come from a culture, personally, of a religious

POM     This is what I want to get at.

AS     - of a religious vision of the world in which good and evil in themselves have some kind of intrinsic meaning and I find it often obscures much more than it clarifies. That's why human dignity and respect for human dignity for me has got to be the starting off point and if the values, the measures, the steps, the vision promotes human dignity to that extent it's good. If it undermines and destroys to that extent it's bad. I think that enables much more textured responses. If human dignity is being assailed, as I believe it is for the Palestinian people, that's part and parcel of the ingredients. If human dignity requires that the people living in Israel, given their history in the past, should have a secure state, that's part and parcel of the total equation that goes into it. If human dignity requires that there has to be some kind of absolution enabling these two states to live side by side in dignity then it puts pressure on the processes and the people who are making it more difficult for that settlement to be achieved. If human dignity requires an end to the arrogance of the west in terms of attitudes towards the Orient, towards Islam, the telling of history, Islamophobia, then that's part and parcel of the total equation. If human dignity requires that the repressive, autocratic states in the Islamic world have to be changed because people are being oppressed that's part and parcel of the equation.

     So dignity brings in a whole series of themes and streams and in the case of the US and its alter ego in a way, which is, we'll call it Bin Laden, and Bin Laden's alter ego is the US, human dignity says strip away the demonisation. Doing that doesn't mean that there's no punishment, that there's no response, that you simply say, that you simply turn the other cheek but it does mean that the means that you use, the goals that you're trying to achieve, the philosophy into which you tap is based not simply on slogans, on might is right, on we are powerful, how dare you touch us, we'll get revenge, that you've now touched a lion and we're going to devour you, that doesn't promote human dignity. So I think it has lessons for both sides for how we respond and both for the techniques that are used, the methods that are used, the objectives and how you regard the enemy.

     I don't want to be driven into a position where I have to defend Bin Laden in the slightest by a kind of totalist intransigent humanisation of him. It makes me angry. In addition to all the confused emotions that I have I get angry when I find myself by some of the rhetoric and the great power, arrogance and chauvinism that's emerging from some quarters in the US, I personally don't like that style of President Bush where you feel everything is

POM     Cowboy style.

AS     Well it's not even the cowboy style. A cowboy gets on a horse and gallops away and can get thrown. This is a programmed style with a southern accent but it's not cowboy really, it's machine made, it lacks that sense of real compassion and humanity and concern.

     Can I just mention, while I'm doing this recording, how astonished I've been at how fellow South Africans have responded across the board. I've been rather amazed. I would have expected much more direct total backing for the US position. It hasn't been there. Part of it is a sense of comeuppance, that we hate Bin Laden, we hate what they've done but by golly, you know, they pulled off this most extraordinary thing. I saw someone on TV, a black person, saying, "Mission Impossible. You Americans invented Mission Impossible, these daring-do characters who go round the world blowing up things and getting away with it." Comeuppance.

     So to see the big powerful character with a bloody nose provokes very strange kinds of reactions. That's been part of it. People who don't really know Mayor Giuliani, or who know him politically, don't like him at all, contrast the way that he's responded as a human being on the spot, big moment sure, a sense of theatre sure, but contrasting him behaving like a president compared to the President who is behaving like a well-programmed office bureaucrat. It says something about the nature of power in the US, not just the personalities involved and it's part of that thing that one feels nothing is for real in terms of the power games that are played up top there and maybe if we end up with much more for real as a result of this awful tragedy maybe that will be a gain that will come out of it. I don't see that so far.

POM     Do you think part of the South African reaction, I think which is a reaction that is in other parts of the world as well, particularly in the developing world or the less developed, undeveloped or non-developed world, is this issue that has been on the surface that the west will not address of the growing inequality between south and north. The rich simply get richer and the poor simply get poorer and this is sending, in a way, a message that you are not listening to us, you do not understand the poverty we live in, you make small gestures but the level of inequality is so great that you deserve in a way because of your self-indulgence or greed or non-concern for others, to be taken down a peg or two, to be made to to use the occasion to reflect upon how you treat the rest of the world?

AS     But what's astonished me is it's not only people with a struggle background and poor people who have responded with that sense of confusion that I have. It's middle class people, people from what used to be the 'other side', cultivated people, people who are not poor, who don't even think too much about the poor. So I think it's what you're saying and more. It's the arrogance of the west but also the arrogance in the west that's part and parcel of it. The withdrawal from the Conference on Racism was a symptom of it, the disdain for the UN.

POM     The Kyoto Agreement.

AS     The Kyoto Agreement, these are all symptoms of it that don't only deal with inequality and rich and poor. It's got a strong cultural dimension as well in the sense of a nation, or the leaders of a nation arrogating themselves the right to determine the culture if the world, the views of the world, what matters. That's part and parcel of it. I think it's a reaction also to the triumph of materialism, acquisition, physical accumulation in itself and a seeking after cultural, spiritual, other kinds of values of significance.

     So I agree with you, yes it is related to the sense of the growing gap between rich and poor but even rich people in the poor nations, even many who have become corrupted, who are buying into the whole thing, even many of them have felt comeuppance, that now you are feeling some pain. We've felt the pain. When you bombed Bagdad and innocent people died you didn't care because you were getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Now you're feeling the pain yourselves.

POM     One of the things that I had been looking into for a number of years is has the average American any idea of the numbers of ordinary Iraqi citizens who were killed in those night missions? The estimate one gets is about a quarter million people were killed. It has never entered into the American consciousness that people were killed. That's what bombing from a height does but no-one has ever even human rights people have never really raised the issue of how many ordinary Iraqis died because Saddam Hussein was so dehumanised or demonised that getting him overrode every other consideration.

AS     And also he behaved in a demonic fashion as well. So it's complicated. He slaughtered many people in his country but the fact is it was personalised, individualised. He's still there which makes it, from the point of view of objectives, even more bitter. Power didn't even succeed in achieving what it set out to do. But it's that simplification of human relations and interactions and the insensitivity that it doesn't even enter into the debate whereas for people living in the Middle East who were already angry with the US they don't forget and it's as raw and as vivid as the memory of the Towers will be for decades in the US. So I am sure that's part and parcel of it. It's much more than simply the wealthy part of the world insensitive to the poor part of the world. I think that's at the heart of it all but it's got lots of other cross currents, lots of cross currents. I also don't want to find myself compelled in the slightest to defend Saddam Hussein. That's not the choice that I have to make and I don't want to be forced into that choice, you're with me or you're against me. No, it's not like that. I'm with values, I'm with standards, I'm with principles and at certain moments overwhelmingly it puts you on one side or the other but you don't lose your own perspective, your own critical judgement and if I can just conclude with this, we wouldn't have a country here in SA today, I wouldn't be giving this interview if it wasn't for the triumph of that kind of philosophy, of getting out of this cycle of action, reaction, retaliation and going on from generation unto generation. We got out of it, we consciously got out of it and I think it's absolutely vital that that be done. It didn't mean that we neglected the importance of bringing wars to an end, of avoiding civil war, of disarming people and of prosecuting and sending people to jail when that became necessary, but the main focus wasn't that. The main focus was finding a way of living together, of an agreed consensus on the foundations of living together and isolating by a whole range of methods those who wouldn't come on board.

POM     Thank you.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.