Friday, June 11, 2010

In Honor of the World Cup - South African Legal History

In honor of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which begins today, I've pulled together some scholarship on the legal history of South Africa. It's an exciting area, and there seems to be room for much more work.

One of the major books in the field is The Making of South African Legal Culture, 1902-1936: Fear, Favour, and Prejudice (2001), by Martin Chanock (La Trobe University, Victoria). Coverage includes Roman-Dutch law; the State’s African law; land and labor law; and criminal law. The publisher describes the book as a "revisionist analysis." Here's a snippet of a review, by Frank Salamone:
Martin Chanock takes a refreshing approach to legal history, viewing it as a cultural product. As such it is in constant flux, responding to the issues of the day while recreating itself. This approach is a fine complement to histories that view South African law as forged in the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, ignoring its adaptation to the processes of colonialism and apartheid.

A second major theme of Chanock's excellent work is that of multiplicity. It is his contention that South African law developed in response to a number of claims and influences. He says that no single voice dominated its development. Thus, many factors figured into its development, each competing and sometimes cooperating in its shaping.

Finally, Chanock claims, quite rightly I believe, that his work has implications beyond the understanding of South African legal culture. It is part of "a larger process of legal colonization—a transfer of ideas, images, doctrine, institutions and legislative models" that marks the period Chanock covers. This insight into a more general process lends greater weight to Chanock's book. It indeed provides a general frame for understanding the colonial process.
Wesley Pue has posted another review here. (Pue, a professor at the University of British Columbia, notes that the legal history of South Africa is particularly germane to Canadians.)

Other scholars have contributed to the field by tackling more discrete episodes and topics. In the Spring 2009 issue of the History Workshop Journal, you can find "Who Killed Meyer Hasenfus? Organized Crime, Policing and Informing on the Witwatersrand, 1902–8," by Charles van Onselen (University of Pretoria). Here's the abstract:
For three decades, dating back to 1886, the gold mining industry at the heart of South Africa’s industrial revolution underwrote a social structure in which men outnumbered women to an alarming degree. This imbalance spawned a trade in commercial sex which for many years was dominated by Russo-Polish gangsters. The prevalence of ‘organized vice’ posed a dilemma for successive governments, which sought to retain the appeal of prostitutes in labour markets characterized by shortages of male workers while simultaneously seeking to eliminate the worst excesses of organized crime. This already delicate balance was upset after the South African War (1899-1902) when London Irish and Cockney Jews arrived to contest the hegemony of East European underworld elements. As part of an effort to infiltrate ‘foreign’ Russo-Polish gangs, the Milner administration resorted to the use of informers, thereby further inflaming conflict between East European and ‘English’ gangsters. The economic downturn of 1906-8 set the stage for a tragedy culminating in the death of an informer, Meyer Hasenfus. But amidst all the complexities it became exceedingly difficult to determine culpability and several independent-minded prostitutes, led by a woman centrally involved in the Hasenfus case, used the moment to stage a revolt and cast off the yokes of their pimps. The death of Hasenfus marked a turning point in the history of local crime.
Another article from the History Workshop Journal (2005) is "Verwoerd's Bureau of Proof: Total Information in the Making of Apartheid," by Keith Derek Breckinridge (University of KwaZulu-Natal). This is Breckenridge's summary:
Hendrik Verwoerd, Apartheid's founder, imposed what he called the 'Bewysburostelsel' – a term that is best translated as the 'bureau of proof regime' – on South Africa during the 1950s. This paper is a narrative of the administrative catastrophe that followed from the grand project of building a central biometric population register for all Africans, the issuing of identity cards and classification of the huge body of fingerprints that poured in from the countryside. The story examines internally-generated crises and some of the ways those subjected to the Bewysburo sought to defeat it. It offers a new explanation of the origins of Verwoerd's Bantustan policy, for the pervasiveness of violence in the 1960s, and for the Apartheid state's paradoxically blind strength in the decades that followed. The paper thus addresses some of the key questions in the history of the Apartheid state, but it may also offer several important lessons for the contemporary American, and British, effort to build centralised national security databases, like John Poindexter's recently-closed office of Total Information Awareness, or David Blunkett's biometric identity card.
All my searches for South African legal history turned up work by Vertrees C. Malherbe (University of Cape Town), who has used legal records to explore patterns of family formation and sexuality. One recent example is "Born Into Bastardy: The Out-of-Wedlock Child in Early Victorian Cape Town," Journal of Family History (2007). Here's the abstract:
"Born into Bastardy" contributes to research into family life and law as it evolved in South Africa's "mother city" from the seventeenth century. It traces the legal framework in which illegitimacy occurred and the experience of out-of-wedlock children when the father was absent or negligent in providing support. Histories of illegitimacy lead to considerations of the destruction of unwanted children by abortion and infanticide, or their abandonment to custodial care. The early years of Victoria's reign coincided with the emancipation of slaves throughout the British Empire. The fact that Cape Town had been home to slaves for whom marriage was proscribed until very recent times affects significantly this account of children born into bastardy.
Malherbe is also the author of "Illegitimacy and Family Formation in Colonial Cape Town, to c. 1850," Journal of Social History (2006).

Last, for a fascinating archival source, refer back to Mary's 2006 post on South African anti-apartheid periodicals.

Enjoy the games, and please comment below if you have other reading suggestions!

image credit: flag.

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