South Africa

  • All shall be equal before the law - South Africa Grafitti
  • Anna Bryson, Vincent Saldanha and Kieran McEvoy

    Anna Bryson, Vincent Saldanha and Kieran McEvoy

  • Kieran McEvoy at the University of Cape Town

    Kieran McEvoy at the University of Cape Town


From 1948 South Africa was governed by an official system of racial segregation and white minority rule known as apartheid. The legalistic nature of the regime meant that the law invaded many South Africans’ lives on a routine and daily basis.

‘Struggle’ lawyers (including iconic African National Congress leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo) effectively used the law as a tool of resistance and are widely venerated in South Africa today. Their aim was both to challenge the legitimacy of the state from within and to expose the excesses of the system to an international audience. Their role is often characterised by the duality of being both an active agent of the established legal system and a dissident. Throughout the 1956-1961 Treason Trial Mandela was, for example, simultaneously a practicing attorney and “Accused No. 6”. At times he was in front of the dock in his capacity as an officer of the court; at other times he stood accused, using the platform to advance the political agenda of the ANC. Several decades later, former constitutional court judge, Albie Sachs explained these tensions by stating: “The fact is that for much of my life I lived simultaneously as lawyer. Anyone who has been in clandestinity will know how split the psyche becomes when you work through the law in the public sphere, and against the law in the underground.”

Other lawyers were of course involved in the design and implementation of the apartheid regime. South Africa is of particular interest for this study because its Truth and Reconciliation Commission included efforts to examine the role that the judiciary and legal profession played during the apartheid era, with mixed results.

Lawyers have also been central to the development, operation and critical review of South Africa’s transition. Today they grapple with the formidable challenge of living up to the ideals of a constitution committed to fundamental social and economic transformation. Contemporary human rights lawyers are, for example, engaged on a range of issues including HIV/Aids, land reform, police abuses, and corruption in public life.

Research Themes

  • Legal culture (permutations of colonialism, apartheid, ANC rule, international influences).
  • Role of legal collectives (Bar Associations, Black Lawyers Association, NADEL).
  • Cause lawyering and social movements (tactics including strategic litigation and mobilisation outside the courtroom, eulogising of key individuals, personal and professional sacrifices, challenge of maintaining split roles – as both a lawyer and an ‘outlaw’).
  • Legacy of legalism (e.g. influence on contemporary legal culture, mechanisms for dealing with the past).
  • Independence of courts, judiciary and legal collectives.
  • Influence of international human rights law and discourses.
  • The efforts to look at the role of lawyers and judges during the apartheid era by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  • Contemporary issues and challenges within the legal community (e.g. gender equality, class structure,  informal justice).

Related Videos

South Africa map
Key Dates
1948 Policy of apartheid (separateness) adopted when National Party (NP) takes power
1960 Seventy black demonstrators killed at Sharpeville. ANC banned
1961 South Africa declared a republic, leaves the Commonwealth. Mandela heads ANC's new military wing, which launches sabotage campaign
1964 ANC leader Nelson Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment
1966 Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd assassinated
1970s More than three million people forcibly resettled in black ‘homelands’
1976 More than 600 killed in clashes between black protesters and security forces during uprising which starts in Soweto
1984-89 Township revolt, state of emergency
1990 ANC unbanned, Mandela released after 27 years in prison. Namibia becomes independent
1991 Start of multi-party talks. De Klerk repeals remaining apartheid laws, international sanctions lifted. Major fighting between ANC and Zulu Inkatha movement
1994 ANC wins first non-racial elections. Mandela becomes president, Government of National Unity formed, Commonwealth membership restored, remaining sanctions lifted. South Africa takes seat in UN General Assembly after 20-year absence
1996 Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu begins hearings on human rights crimes committed by former government and liberation movements during apartheid era.
Parliament adopts new constitution. National Party withdraws from coalition, saying it is being ignored
1998 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report brands apartheid a crime against humanity and finds the ANC accountable for human rights abuses
1999 ANC wins general elections, Thabo Mbeki takes over as president
2003 Government approves major programme to treat and tackle HIV/Aids. It envisages network of drug-distribution centres and preventative programmes. Cabinet had previously refused to provide anti-Aids medicine via public health system
2004 Ruling ANC wins landslide election victory, gaining nearly 70% of votes. Thabo Mbeki begins a second term as president. Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi is dropped from the cabinet
2005 Investigators exhume the first bodies in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigation into the fates of hundreds of people who disappeared in the apartheid era
2008 Wave of violence directed at foreigners hits townships across the country. Dozens of people die and thousands of Zimbabweans, Malawians and Mozambicans return home
A judge throws out a corruption case against ruling ANC party chief Jacob Zuma, opening the way for him to stand as the country's president in 2009
President Mbeki resigns over allegations that he interfered in the corruption case against Mr Zuma. ANC deputy leader Kgalema Motlanthe is chosen by parliament as president.
2009 Parliament elects Jacob Zuma as president.
2012 Police open fire on workers at a platinum mine in Marikana, killing at least 34 people, and leaving at least 78 injured and arresting more than 200 others. Prosecutors drop murder charges in September against 270 miners after a public outcry, and the government sets up a judicial commission of inquiry in October
President Zuma re-elected as leader of the ANC
2013 Nelson Mandela dies, aged 95. Tributes to "the father of the nation" flood in from throughout the world
2014 Ruling ANC party wins a majority in general elections

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