While it may fall during Holocaust Awareness Week this year, the co-chair of the ninth annual Sol and Florence Kanee Distinguished Lecture Series says 2013’s guest speaker underlines that human rights concerns expand far beyond any one event or group.
With "humanist of the first order" Justice Albie Sachs of South Africa, "we are looking to reach well outside the Jewish community this year," says Rona Davies, a past president of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.
Sachs, a former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa appointed by Nelson Mandela in 1994, will appear at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue at 561 Wellington Crescent on April 11 — the only Canadian date on his present speaking tour – to deliver "Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter," taken from the title of his 1991 book.
Now 78, Sachs was tasked with drafting a charter for a new non-racial state in South Africa.
Past speakers in the series, which the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada presents annually, have included British historian and official Winston Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert, Canadian conservative pundit and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, and Holocaust historian Dr. Deborah Lipstadt.
Event co-chair, and former Liberal MP for Winnipeg South Centre, Anita Neville says while the talk has fallen coincidentally during Holocaust Awareness Week, the timing remains appropriate, given the overarching theme.
Indeed, she continues, with the Canadian Museum of Human Rights ever-nearing completion, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Winnipeg continuing its work, Sachs makes for a "very timely" choice – especially considering Canada’s TRC took after that which Sachs helped establish in South Africa.
Ironically, parts of Canada’s own 1867 Indian Act were used as a model for apartheid, with officials of the Indian Affairs Department even travelling to South Africa to discuss details.
Chief Wilton Littlechild, a lawyer and commissioner of Canada’s TRC, will introduce Sachs.
A lifelong activist, Sachs declares himself as having been "born into the struggle" in a podcast on the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. "I just didn’t stand a chance."
And yet persevere he did. The son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrant parents to South Africa, Sachs began anti-apartheid action as a law student of 17. Within a few years he began practice, representing black defendants against racist laws.
Enduring imprisonment, solitary confinement, torture and finally exile, Sachs was almost assassinated in 1988 by a car bomb in Mozambique, planted by South African security forces. Horrific video footage exists of Sachs, less one arm, moments after the explosion.
Yet, in a talk with TED this past December, he humbly emphasized that "thousands of South Africans can tell similar stories."
He was able to return to South Africa in 1990.
"He’s not only lectured about these issues, he’s lived them," Davies declares.
Sachs is also known for authoring Minister of Home Affairs v Fourie in 2005, which overturned discrimination against same-sex marriage, resulting in marriage equality under the new constitution Sachs helped establish.