He began his work on behalf of human rights causes while studying law at the University of Cape Town. He went on to earn a Ph.D. from Sussex University.
His 1966 work The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs recounted his imprisonment and subsequent exile as a result of his political activism. The work was adapted into a stage and television play.
He grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, as a member of a Jewish family of Lithuanian heritage.
He and French President Francois Hollande were both instrumental in legalizing same-sex marriage in their respective countries.