Legal Text and Lawyers’ Culture in South Africa


Consider Notice R. 873. Issued by the Commissioner of the South African Police, this notice expanded the category of “subversive statements” set out, and forbidden, in regulations earlier promulgated to enforce the state of emergency in South Africa. As the Notice reflects, its object was to enable the state to silence campaigns for the release of people being held in detention without trial. Under the Notice and the regulations, any statement inciting or encouraging, or calculated to have the effect of inciting or encouraging, anyone to commit any of the acts specified in the Notice, acts that supported the release of detainees, became a subversive statement.

It is not difficult to understand why the South African government would want to quash opposition to its use of detention without trial. Notice R. 873, therefore, is interesting not so much for what it does – though that retains a grotesque fascination – as for how it does it. This notice exemplifies a principal South African method of achieving this and other unattractive objectives: the use of law. Compared to other tyrants, Joseph Lelyveld writes, “South Africa’s white rulers have been unusually conscientious about securing statutory authority for their abuses.”2 In the words of the historian Martin Chanock, “[t]he oppressions of apartheid have, until the beginnings of it disintegration, characteristically been imposed not by the random terror of the death squad, but by the routine and systematic processes of courts and bureaucrats.”

It would be a mistake, however, to think of South African law simply as a tool of the government. On the contrary, the role of law in South African oppression is a continually contested one, for not only the government but also its opponents seek to invoke law on their behalf. It does not seem inevitable that the law would become such a field of struggle. An unjust state might dispense with legal forms more totally than South Africa has done, or on the other hand, might arm itself with the irresistible legal authority of a leviathan. This Article seeks to explain why the government has chosen to rely so heavily on legal regulation to maintain its power over an oppressed black majority, why those who oppose the government have been able to muster a significant legal response, and how the conflicting forces of the state and its opposition have shaped the law and the legal culture of South Africa. These are large questions, to which I will offer only tentative answers, but I believe that a close examination of the wording and the effects of one legal text, Notice R. 873, against the background of South African life will help us understand the ambiguous role of law in South African society.

I will begin, in Section I of this Article, by sketching the government’s reasons for using the law as a method of social control. Among these, undoubtedly, is the sheer effectiveness of legal regulation. In South Africa, however, the rule of law is not only a tool but also a value, and I will suggest that South Africa’s use of the law reflects the desire of South African whites to seem, and even to be, faithful to this value.

A general understanding of the government’s reasons for using the law does not in itself tell us what sorts of laws the government will choose to enact, and in Section II, I will look closely at Notice R. 873 in order to outline several salient features of the laws the government adopts and suggest the purposes which those features serve. As we will see, Notice R. 873’s distortion of language and its convolution may in part grow out of the government’s desire to mask its enterprise as much as possible. Yet the Notice’s elaborate detail undercuts such masking, and I will argue that this detail both expresses the government’s deep apprehension of popular onslaught and reflects its anticipation of legal challenge.

Because the laws employed by the government thus reflect not only its own desires but its anticipation of opposition, we must understand the opposition to understand the law. The rise of popular mobilization against apartheid, however, is not my focus here. Instead, in Section M, I will seek to explain why anti-apartheid forces in South Africa have been able to make considerable use of the law against the government. I will argue that South African law provides lawyers with surprisingly supple doctrinal support for limiting government oppression. I will also suggest that the structure and traditions of the legal profession and of the courts have supplied important buttresses for individual lawyers’ courageous decisions to use the law against the government as well as for the willingness of some judges to render decisions vindicating such positions. The upshot of the availability of useful doctrines and of lawyers ready to use them has been that legal challenges to the government’s efforts to use the law are widespread. While these challenges are often unsuccessful, we will see through the example of Notice R. 873 itself that their results can still be significant.

While the law is shaped by the conflict between the government and the anti-apartheid opposition, that conflict is hardly confined to the courts. The force of the idea of law can be measured in part by the force of principles or practices that deny the obligation to obey the law, and in Section IV, I will argue that such challenges to legality have considerable support on both sides of South Africa’s ideological and racial divide. In this light, I will suggest that the political struggle underway in South Africa not only shapes its law but also imports into the legal culture itself the claims of illegality.

As this Article goes to press, blacks and whites in South Africa are moving towards the formal start of negotiations which may lead to the transformation of much of the legal system and legal culture I describe here. I write, therefore, as the ice of South Africa’s winter cracks, but there is still much to be done before summer comes. It remains important for us to understand the ways in which law can be bent to the service of oppression, and yet also invoked on behalf of liberty, in South Africa and elsewhere.

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