“I would reverse the question, exploring how politics influenced his being a lawyer,”
says Sachs, adding that his desire to become a lawyer gave Mandela the opportunity to be independent, and to be available for political work.
“Secondly, it gave him the opportunity to attend to the needs of the people. Mandela was never a lawyers’ lawyer in the traditional sense.
First and foremost, he was subordinate to the political values that gave him a sense of independence.”
Between 1952 and 1961, Madiba and Oliver Tambo ran the country’s only black legal firm at Chancellor House in Johannesburg.
As a law student, Sachs recalls walking through queues of people waiting to be seen at the Chancellor House offices of Mandela & Tambo Attorneys at the corner of Fox and Becker (now Gerard Sekoto) streets.
“It was always full of people, Ruth Mompati (then the firms’ typist), would welcome visitors to meet him,” remembers Sachs.
At a time of growing Nationalist Party repression, Mandela & Tambo Attorneys was like an oasis in a desert,
providing a haven of help to many black citizens who fell foul of the tightening legislative regime.
Chronicling this period in her 2000 book The World that Made Mandela, social historian and author Luli Callinicos writes:
“Africans were desperate for legal help … it was a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain,
LAWYER OF THE POOR a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the street after 11pm, a crime not to have a pass book
and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed LAWYER OF THE POOR
and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live.
Every day we heard and saw the thousands of humiliations that ordinary Africans confronted every day of their lives.”
These were the types of cases confronting Mandela & Tambo Attorneys.
But Mandela’s speaking skills, which, according to Sachs, became a key instrument of the struggle, were also founded on the solid bond with Tambo.
Something he says was not a certainty given that they were two strong personalities intent on pursuing a legal and personal partnership, as well as a political and personal partnership.
“Partnerships make or break friendships, but in this case it lasted until OR [Tambo] died on 24 April 1993,” says Sachs.
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