‘Everything Went on Trust’

Albie Sachs
ALBIE SACHS, Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court 1994–2009

Let’s face it, we were slightly mad. No, not slightly, very. We believed we could transform the race-obsessed authoritarian country that had given the word “apartheid” to the world into an exemplary non-racial democracy. We thought that our Constitution—founded on principles of human dignity, equality and freedom—could actually be made to work. So, given the wild improbability of our aspirations, it was not surprising that, although the international applause was immense and some decent, practical support arrived, belief in the idealistic side of our project was virtually non-existent outside of ourselves.

Well, it takes a crazy—like an unnamed philanthropic group we had never met—to spot and link up with a fellow crazy. We judges of the newly established Constitutional Court had what many thought of as the demented idea of building our permanent home in the heart of a notorious prison. The Old Fort Prison of Johannesburg was a site of pain, where hundreds of thousands had been imprisoned, including both Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. And the building was crumbling, metal was being stolen and weeds were proliferating in and around the cells. Certainly not, any sane person would have said, the place to locate a confident new court intended to hold the judicial reins in our new democracy.

Yet, talk about folie à deux. We met counterparts in the philanthropic world who were as besotted as we were about responding not just to humanity’s needs but to humanity’s dreams. And we didn’t even know who they were. How could we obey rule number one of grantee gratitude: extol the virtues of our benefactors. Yet here the left hand would not know what the right hand was doing. Indeed, this was a benefaction that dared us not to speak its name. (We were warned again and again that, if we sought to discover their identity, any grant proposal they were considering would automatically self-destruct.)

And the oddity of the relationship didn’t stop there. Anyone connected with philanthropy could have told us that we would be wasting our time trying to get funding for physical infrastructure. Money could go for equipment, salaries, transport and conferences, but never ever for buildings. Yet conserving the disintegrating prison precinct is exactly what we needed. Government could find the money for building the court. But it faced too many other demands to invest in rehabilitating a dilapidated prison of dark memory.

And then we all knew that the most important part of a grant proposal was to establish measurable goals with precise costing of how they could be reached. Not so with No-Name Philanthropy. Everything went on trust: trusting a core idea, discerning a powerful if intangible goal, and finding people of integrity and commitment to follow through with the project.

Of course, after a while we knew at least one defining element of who the donors were: They were the only ones who didn’t want their name to be known! And finally, and apparently for the least dream-like of reasons, it seems, namely for banal tax-compliance reasons, the cat had to be let out of the bag and the anonymous became nonymous: Atlantic Philanthropies!

Our fellow dreamers not only had the vision, they had the money to accomplish amazing projects of all magnitudes. Their investments in the University of the Western Cape were big and audacious, propelling what had been known as the “bush college” into one of the country’s top five universities. The Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island, a medium-scale project, produced a dignified departure point from the continent to the island synonymous for pain, endurance and ultimate triumph. The District Six Museum was a relatively small project. Yet, in its modesty, it became all the more inspiring as it powerfully revealed its stories directly and intimately to the viewer. Such investments transcend concrete and steel to become part of the country’s soul.

Eschewing the accountant’s bean-counting mindset, Atlantic cared deeply about policy, values and improving lives. And approached its work with an esprit that lifted our hearts. Rather than over-thinking and asking for yet more study, Atlantic did an amazing thing: It simply believed. And then it acted. And literally helped us build a new democracy.

— ALBIE SACHS, Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court 1994–2009