Albie Sachs gets behind Barefoot Against Poverty

The 75-year old human rights activist kicked off his Crocs, and the minute his feet touched the ground on the fan walk to the Cape Town Stadium, he felt humbled.

Retired Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs admitted he initially felt awkward about taking part in the Barefoot Against Poverty campaign, but he said he simply could not say no as it had the support of The Elders.

Veteran human rights activist Albie Sachs goes Barefoot Against Poverty, an initiative aimed at making more South Africans aware of the poverty around them.

Considering the eminence of the independent group of global leaders, brought together by former president Nelson Mandela, the celebrated South African agreed to stroll barefoot down the fan walk to publicise the world-wide campaign, which takes place on International Human Rights Day on December 10.

“At first I felt a bit awkward about the whole thing. The idea is that people who have shoes should take them off to remember those who haven’t got shoes,” he said. “I must say the minute I took my shoes off — I was wearing Crocs — and my feet touched the ground, I felt the tar and it was terrific. It was like I had direct contact with the world. It was not a false mimicking of the poor. It was just the sense of aligning myself with all humanity with this notion of going barefoot.”

Sachs was interviewed in a homely bungalow in Clifton, where he is staying while his house is being built. With the glorious backdrop of white sands and turquoise water behind him, poverty seems far away. But in the carpark, a homeless couple are sleeping rough on the tarmac, and carguards descend for tips. Sachs acknowledged poverty is all around us. “Poverty does not hide away because it is a reality,” he said. “And when we see it, we can help.”

Humble yourself
Walking barefoot was a form of humbling himself, said Sachs, and he hopes the idea will catch on. At noon on December 10, people around the world are being asked to take off their shoes and walk around the block or even around their office. People are also being encouraged to make a video or take photographs, and upload them on to the website

“Our clothes styles can define us. It is like throwing everything off for a fellow human being,” said Sachs.

Sachs said he had enjoyed the barefoot experience and taking a stroll down the fan walk, which had evoked wonderful memories of the World Cup held in a joyous South Africa.

Touching the ground also brought back memories of the years Sachs spent in forced exile in Mozambique, where he worked as a law professor and legal researcher. He thought of the “barefoot” doctors and lawyers who lived there at the time, so-called because they did not have all the paraphernalia to do the work. But Sachs said they had direct contact with the communities, which meant they still did a great job.

In 1988, Sachs had experience of the powers of healing in Maputo when a bomb, placed in his car by South African security agents, blew up. He lost an arm and the sight in one eye during the bombing.

Surviving against the odds, Sachs is today as busy as ever, writing and travelling locally and abroad to give talks on his experiences under apartheid. As an African National Congress (ANC) member and advocate defending people in repressive times, he was persecuted by the security police and spent 168 days in solitary confinement without trial.

In the South Africa of today, Sachs said there were still tremendous disparities between rich and poor in South Africa, but there was a vast middle class with access to resources, and people could still make a difference by spreading ubuntu to those around them.

The South African principle of ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. Rowena McNaughton, media officer for CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation which is helping organise the event, said that in South Africa, around seven-million children do not have access to shoes. So like Sachs has done, kick off your shoes, and feel humbled.

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Glynnis Underhill
Glynnis Underhill has been in journalism for more years than she cares to remember. She loves a good story as much now as she did when she first started. The only difference is today she hopes she is giving something back to the country.

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