Book Review: On alchemy, law, and life

Tarek Osman , Tuesday 8 Dec 2020

These books, including those by several US Supreme Court judges, are typically wonderful and wondrous journeys into logic and deduction


The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law, by: Albie Sachs, Oxford University Press; 320pp.

It could have been the plot of a John Grisham novel. A lawyer assisting an underground, illegal group. Yet, he understands the importance of maintaining order and sees the historical underpinnings of the system the underground group tries to overthrow. But the book is not a novel; rather the reflections of Albie Sachs, a lawyer who became one of South Africa’s most renowned judges and a key force in interpreting its post-Apartheid constitution.

Sachs' The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law follows the venerable tradition of books on judicial reasoning. These books, including those by several US Supreme Court judges, are typically wonderful and wondrous journeys into logic and deduction.

Sachs’ book delivers on the intellectual expectations. But what sets it apart is its background: the period the author helped shape. The late 1980s and 1990s in South Africa saw the end of the Apartheid, the beginning of majority rule in the country, and crucially a societal soul-searching that entailed questions about the essence of the political transition of this multi-racial, multi-cultural country at the time.

Fear was in the air. Many white South Africans were anxious, and some people I know and saw at that period wanted to leave to build new lives “away”. Even among those who understood the bankruptcy and the inevitability of the end of the Apartheid system, there were acute concerns about what “the majority” would do after they come to power.

At the core of these concerns were questions about justice. This is hardly surprising in a society that lived for many decades under a socio-political structure in which not only a minority ruled over the majority, but also in which that minority excluded the majority from almost all meaningful political and economic participation.

The existence of a leader with the morals and gravitas of Nelson Mandela proved to be a safety valve, so was close observation of the country by several powerful international stakeholders.

Yet, neither Mandela nor major global powers could have guaranteed stability and a peaceful transition, for the questions about justice, and the natural urges for retribution (and some would say, for revenge) were impossible to douse. There were moments when flames seemed destined to become fires. But at the end the majority of “the majority” chose to forgive. Naturally they also chose “never to forget”; a sentiment that carried with it the potentiality of exacting (the all-human) subjective versions of justice.

It is here that Sachs’ brilliance materialises. A key stream of this book revolves around this subjectivity of justice. As an experienced judge, Sachs dismisses the superficiality with which most of us address this grave notion of justice. He respects emotions. Actually one of the beautiful features of this book is the humanity that this old judge displays in his thinking and reasoning.

But here, rendering justice elevates above rapid assessments and stirred emotions. Here, justice is deliberated, analysed, seen from myriad angles, and explored under different lights. We come to see this beguiling subjectivity of justice. Often we are left confused with conflicting arguments. Yet, through these explorations and by appreciating this subjectivity, we also come to respect the gravity of the idea of justice.

Respect goes further. Sachs conveys a crucial aspect of what justice is: respecting the people for whom justice is supposed to be rendered. His lengthy expositions, assessments of different arguments, and linking the historical and grandeur with the specific and mundane make it accessible.
Sachs allows us, the ordinary people without training in logic and rhetoric, to relate to justice in one of its most elevated expressions.

The author could have stopped at the big arguments, philosophical interpretations, and the resounding statements about justice. But he courageously chose to let us delve into the labyrinths of specific cases on which he ruled. Through the details we gradually discern how he thinks. There is joy in observing his thinking. There is education for most readers, for such shadowing of a great mind is a valuable opportunity. And, in observing his thinking, we see glimpses of the real dilemmas that were inherent in South Africa’s political and social transition.

This exposition on the idea and practice of justice may also hold legitimacy. Sachs is linked to the legal foundations of South Africa’s post-Apartheid governing structure. His elaboration on the importance of thinking about justice from different standpoints, and the intellectual rigour with which he undertook that thinking, give credibility to the notion that there were serious attempts in the country to uphold justice, despite the acute social and political complications associated with its transition. This is one of strongest foundations of the legitimacy of any political system.

That Sachs achieves that lofty objective in a lucid style of writing, and without any claim to grandeur -- albeit often through playfulness and not taking himself too seriously -- gives more power to his book. The digestibility here is a rare quality among books on judicial reasoning.

Out of Sachs’ lucidity and playfulness there emerge spaces for disagreements with him. We are given many inputs and are subtly encouraged by that colossal mind to think alongside him.

In the details of the cases, and on what they lead to, perhaps the majority of the readers would sit back, listen and learn. Yet, in how the thinking coalesces into a view about these grand notions – scoping justice, delivering it, and the links to the socio-political system in the country at that difficult juncture in its history – many readers would read, think, and re-think, before arriving at different destinations from those Sachs arrived at.

This is beautiful, because the lucidity and flow of writing encourage the readers to think independently. In a way, Sachs allows us to become judges on his own judgements. 

Short link: