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Former South African justice kicks off "Eye on Africa" speaker series

January 23, 2019
<p>Retired Constitutional Court of South Africa Justice Albert "Albie" Sachs speaks to MSU students and faculty at the first "Eye on Africa" event of the semester.&nbsp;</p>

Retired Constitutional Court of South Africa Justice Albert "Albie" Sachs speaks to MSU students and faculty at the first "Eye on Africa" event of the semester. 

Photo by Zach Brown | The State News

A retired Constitutional Court of South Africa justice was the first speaker of the semester for the Michigan State African Studies Department's "Eye on Africa" seminar series.

Judge Albert “Albie” Sachs —  who received an honorary doctorate of law from MSU last year and now teaches a course on constitutional law — spoke to MSU students and faculty Thursday afternoon about same-sex marriage in the Constitutional Court of South Africa and the United States.

“I was actually the one who wrote the opinion for the court on same-sex marriage in South Africa in 2005," Sachs said. "And we became the fifth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriages and the court played an important role in doing that."

The African Studies Department hosts Eye on Africa events weekly throughout the school year. The series brings notable speakers to campus, all of whom study varying topics that are prominent across Africa. From religion to technology to agriculture, coordinators within the department hope to cover a wide range of topics appealing to many students on campus. 

“The Eye on Africa is a way that we can bring in top leaders in our field. Sometimes we’ll have students — we’re going to have a student panel later this year — (or) researchers who are in the middle of developing ideas might try them out," Director of the African Studies Center Jamie Monson said. "Or we might have a response to something that is going on in Africa that is quite important in terms of current events."

Past topics have included confronting the contradictions of documentary photography, gender, sexuality, Zimbabwe’s 2018 election and other political issues. Upcoming events include a look at African food system dynamics and the topic of Boko Haram.

“(This series is) really great because we get people doing the newest work in African studies." Elizabeth Timbs, a doctoral student employee who studies African history and helps coordinates events, said. "It’s a real kind of snapshot of what’s going on in the field." 

The African Studies Center organized the semester's first event, where Sachs spoke, in collaboration with the MSU College of Law. Anyone is welcome to attend the sessions. 

“I put everything into it. It’s a long way to come and I think they're all curious to see this rather odd-looking judge from South Africa, who lost an arm in the freedom struggle, who’s been in and out of jail, who helped to write his country’s constitution, and now as a judge,” Sachs said. 

Sachs' career has spanned the majority of his life. Former South African President Nelson Mandela appointed Sachs to the Constitutional Court in 1994, but their history together goes back much further. Working together, they fought against apartheid and racial injustice in their country. 

Sachs is renowned for his activism and judicial rulings against discrimination, most notably in his majority opinion that struck down South Africa’s law defining marriage to be between a man and a woman.

“If we can’t manage difference in South Africa we’re finished as a country," Sachs said. 

Sachs expressed a positive view on the outlook of South Africa, noting that the composition of the Constitutional Court changed from seven out of eleven judges being white to now having seven judges of color and more female representation. 

The Eye on Africa seminar series will take place every Thursday of the semester from noon to 1:30 p.m. in room 201 of the International Center.

“I think it’s great for students to get to engage with these scholars who are doing this cutting-edge work," Timbs said, "and it gives them a real opportunity to see, not only what the trends are, but also what it means to be a professional Africanist.” 

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