Albert Louis Sachs was born in Johannesburg in 1935. His father, Emil Solomon (Solly) Sachs, had arrived in South Africa from Lithuania at the age of six, on the eve of the First World War, and his mother, Ray, had arrived as an infant. Both of his parents were involved in the Communist Party and trade unionism. His career in human rights activism started in 1952 , when as a 17 year old second year law student at the University of Cape Town, he took part in the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. Three years later, he attended the Congress of the People at Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was adopted. He began his practice as an advocate at the Cape Bar when he was 21, and most of his work involved defending people charged under apartheid’s racist statutes and repressive security laws. Many of the people he defended were facing the death sentence. As a result of his work, he was raided by the security police, subjected to banning orders restricting his movement and was placed in solitary confinement for 168 days without trial. He eventually went into exile in 1966.
He spent eleven years studying and teaching law in England, and a further eleven years in Mozambique working as a law professor and legal researcher. On 7 April 1988, a bomb that was placed in his car in Maputo by South African security agents, blew up. He lost an arm and the sight of one eye. In exile during the 1980’s, Sachs worked closely with Oliver Tambo, the leader of the African National Congress (ANC), and helped draft the organisation’s Code of Conduct and statutes. After recovering from the effects of the bomb blast, he devoted himself full-time to preparations for a new democratic Constitution for South Africa. Finally, in 1990, he returned home. As a member of the Constitutional Committee and the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC, he played an active role in the negotiations which led to South Africa becoming a constitutional democracy. After the first democratic election in 1994, he was appointed by then President Nelson Mandela to serve on the newly established Constitutional Court.
As a constitutional court judge, Justice Sachs was the chief architect of the post-apartheid constitution of 1996. As one of 11 green-robed judges, he participated in landmark rulings. These rulings included declaring capital punishment a violation of the right to life, to making it unconstitutional to prevent gay and lesbian people from marrying. The court also backed Aids campaigners in 2002, by insisting that the government had a duty to provide HIV-positive pregnant women with drugs to reduce the risk of transmission to their newborn babies. In addition to his legal work, he has travelled to many countries sharing his experiences, in order to help heal divided societies.
He has also been engaged in the sphere of art and architecture, and was involved with the development of the Constitutional Court building and its art collection (located on the site of the Old Fort Prison in Johannesburg). Sachs has also authored several books, including The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs (1966), which was published in Britain when he was a banned writer in South Africa. This book was later adapted by David Edgar as an RSC play in 1979, which is now a classic of prison memoirs. Stephanie on Trial followed his second detention and The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter (1990) traced his triumphant convalescence after the bombing. He also wrote a book with Indres Naidoo, entitled Island in Chains. In 1991, he received the Alan Paton Award for Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter.