Emil Solomon (Solly) Sachs was born on 11 November 1900, in Kamaai, Lithuania. He was the fourth of the five children of Abraham Saks, later changed to 'Sachs', and his wife, Hannah Rivkin. Sachs made up his own birthdate because, according to him, the correct date was not known.
Until the age of three Sachs was physically weak and had not yet learnt to speak, but at the age of four his condition improved and he became a lively child. He attended the local cheder, or Jewish Hebrew school, where he was noted for his knowledge of the Talmud and the Pentateuch.
In 1914 the Sachs family moved to South Africa and settled in Ferrelrasdorp, Johannesburg. The local rabbi was so impressed with Sachs's knowledge of the Talmud that he attempted to send him hack to Kamaai, but this was prevented by the outbreak of the First World War (1914-1918).
After completing Standard 5 he left school and began working as an assistant in a shop catering for Black people. During this time he organised shop assistants on the Witwatersrand into a trade union. At the time of its collapse in 1926 he was its honorary secretary. In the meantime he studied privately to pass matric.
When he had earned enough money, Sachs established a boarding house. His interest in politics increased and was characterised by a strong aversion to the National Party (NP). He was drawn towards socialism and established a group which studied the writings of, amongst others, Marx and Stalin, whom he admired greatly. In 1919 he had already joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), and in 1921 he was among the first to Join the Communist Youth League. He studied engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, in 1924, but went to the Soviet Union for six months during the following year to study global revolutionary movements. He also made an in depth study of British trade unions. On returning to South Africa he registered at the University of the Witwatersrand to study law, English and economics.
In 1926 he was elected to the national executive committee of the South African Trade and Labour Council (SATLC). In March 1927 he was appointed as the part time Secretary of the Witwatersrand Middlemen Taylors' Association. He was promoted to the full time position in 1928, when the group had 1 750 members.
At this time women workers were not represented on any union committees. Sachs sympathised with the poor living and working conditions of the many Afrikaner girls from rural areas who came to work in the garment industry on the Witwatersrand during the Depression. This led to his appointment as the Secretary of the Garment Workers' Union of South Africa (GWU) in November 1928.
This union, under Sachs' guidance, became the most active and controversial trade union of its time. Sachs worked closely with Anna Scheepers and Johanna Cornelius, who also held leading positions in the GWU. Sachs led several strikes, including two general strikes by the GWU in 1931 and 1932. The latter was to protest a proposed wage decrease and caused much disruption.
The Minister of Justice, Oswald Pirow, had Sachs arrested and banned for twelve months. General J C Smuts revoked this order when he succeeded Pirow six months later.
After his banishment Sachs went overseas for several months. He was to be deported from Southampton, England, when he landed, but the British Trade Union Council intervened and the order was revoked. He then visited Germany and obtained the rights to show German and Russian films In South Africa. He and his brother Benny founded a film company that brought films to the South African South African circuit.
Owing to his interest in industrial legislation Sachs, as a member of the SATLC, gave evidence before the Industrial Legislation Commission in 1935. The trade union movement was pressing for legislation to assist the unemployed. The first Unemployment Act followed in 1939 but did not cover the clothing industries. Sachs then succeeded in establishing a fund through the Industrial Council for the Clothing Industry in the Transvaal, which operated until the new Unemployment Insurance Act of 1946 came into effect.
In 1944 Sachs was instrumental in getting the Industrial Council for the Clothing Industry to request a Supreme Court definition of “employee” in the Industrial Conciliation Act. The matter in question concerned the reference to pass -bearing people who were not defined as employees, and could not be members of registered unions. As Black women did not carry passes, it was held that they were employees and could be members of the union. The government amended the law so as to exclude Black women from the definition of “employee”. Sachs had already established the South African Clothing Workers' Union in 1928. It consisted of Black men and did not want to admit Black women, so Sachs then established a separate union for them.
As a socialist Sachs found that his views were often opposed by the CPSA. It was felt that his contribution to the party was negative and he was accused of sabotaging the revolutionary activities of the trade unions. In 1931 he was expelled from the party. He was furious about his expulsion, but remained a loyal supporter of the Communist International. Despite his expulsion Sachs was still labelled a communist. During the 1948 elections the NP emphasised the Communist threat, and especially the role of Sachs in the GWU.
Sachs also took part in politics. During the general elections of 1943 he stood as the Independent Party's candidate in the Jeppe constituency. Although this was a workers' constituency in which more than 1 500 members of the GWU lived, Sachs only managed to obtain 475 votes. In 1946 he became a member of the South African Labour Party and in 1952 he was elected National Treasurer.
On 19 May 1952 C R Swart, Minister of Justice, served two notices on Sachs in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. The first was an order to resign as an official of the GWU within 30 days. It also prohibited him from participating in the activities of various organisations. The second restricted his movements to the Transvaal and prohibited him from attending any meetings other than religious, recreational and social gatherings.
The GWU arranged a protest for 24 May 1952 on the steps of the Johannesburg City Hall. Sachs addressed 15 000 people, was arrested and appeared in court the following Monday. The case was postponed and he again tried to address a mass meeting of garment workers who had gone on strike in front of the city hall. He was rearrested and released on bail a day later. In July 1952 he was found guilty on two charges and sentenced to six months' forced labour on each. His appeal against the sentence, which he argued himself, was dismissed on 2 September 1952. The sentence was suspended for two years.
Sachs left South Africa on 30 January 1953 and settled in England. He stated that his position in South Africa had become unsustainable. The University of Manchester awarded him the Simon Senior Research Fellowship for two years. Later the University of London offered him a research post for a year, but excluding this he had no regular income. In the late 1950s the British Labour Party asked him to stand as their candidate for the Hallam constituency in Sheffield, but he was unsuccessful.
Sachs continued his opposition to the South African government in Britain. He protested against the detention of his son, Albert (Albie) Sachs, outside South Africa House and drew a great deal of publicity. In March 1961 he took part in the public protest against government action at Sharpeville. He wrote several books about South Africa, namely The Choice Before South Africa (1952). The Rebel's Daughters (also called Garment workers in action) (1957). The History Of The GWU, and with L Forman The South African Treason Trial (1959) and The Anatomy of Apartheid (1965).
In 1926 Sachs married Ray Ginsberg, a stenographer. The marriage was dissolved in 1942. Sachs then married Dulcie Hartwell. They had a son and a foster son, and were divorced in 1951. Sachs died on 30 July 1976 in London, England.
Verwey, E. J. (1995). New Dictionary of South African Biography, Vol.1, Pretoria: HSRC Publishers, pp. 220-222.