A Retrospective On South Africa – Lawyers As Vanguards

My remarkable visit to Cape Town, South Africa, where I delivered the Rabinowitz Lecture at the University of Cape Town (UCT), conducted a workshop on the challenges of legal education with the UCT faculty, held a session with UCT students who seek a bright future that embraces diversity, and gave the keynote address at a teaching and learning conference for academics from UCT, the University of the Western Cape, and Stellenbosch University, has come to an emotional end.  I close my report on this memorable trip by providing this lengthy, albeit heartfelt narrative.

 The stunning images in the many pictures taken during our stay tell only a part of this amazing country’s narrative.  The beauty of such natural wonders as Table Mountain, the many bays and inlets, and the elegant homes along pristine beaches are juxtaposed with images of townships with homes made of corrugated board and scrap materials, stacked side by side.  This country, like many in the world, remains what Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu describes as a “paradox.”

Prior to our visit, Professor Jeremy Sarkin, who had taught at the University of the Western Cape and visited at Washington and Lee law school almost a decade ago, provided a detailed description of South Africa’s natural beauty.  Penny Andrews, now Dean of the University of Cape Town law school, later confirmed Jeremy’s accounts and added her take on the country’s socioeconomic dynamics.  Through our transformative visit to South Africa, my wife, Paulette, and I now have discovered firsthand the complexities and wonders that embody this fascinating country. 

We had some familiarity with South Africa’s mercurial past, including a rudimentary understanding of colonialism’s influences, the country’s trade that once included immense natural resources, a diversity of peoples and culture, political tensions borne from the vestiges of apartheid, and the emergence of international pioneers and heroes such as Dr. Christian Barnard (who pioneered heart transplantation) and Nelson Mandela (lawyer, political activist, political prisoner, and ultimate leader of a transformed South Africa). Having studied South Africa’s history, and now experiencing some of its present, we have seen a humanistic spirit that feeds from the country’s complex past and is now propelled by the promise of a more promising future.

The visit included confabs with many South Africans, including commercial drivers, business people, service workers, teachers, students, and, given my own profession, academics and lawyers.  Conversations with these citizens were revelatory.  Many service people spoke of their ambitions for greater economic gain in a community that, from appearances, has so much wealth.  Those without permanent jobs became individual “entrepreneurs” by offering such services as car washing and luggage handling.  Students, faculty, staff, and administrators at the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape, and Stollenbosch University provided a narrative of a country that continues to struggle with its identity.  Many of the professionals with whom I met recognized the significance of South Africa’s diversity of peoples and cultures, but also spoke candidly of the challenge of coping with diversity’s complexity in a country that grapples with political and economic realities.

South Africa’s past, characterized most often by apartheid, has left vestiges of many kinds. The late Nelson Mandela remains an iconic figure who symbolized perseverance in the face of unimaginable oppression, thoughtfulness in the rejection of retribution, and humanity in the advancement of reconciliation. Other notables such as the Honorable Albie Sachs, who, despite losing an arm and sight in one eye due to the explosion of a car bomb planted by agents of South Africa’s security forces, fought peaceably for change during apartheid’s zenith. As a lawyer he remained committed to human rights and social justice and emerged to be one of the country’s stellar jurists, sitting on its Constitutional Court (the USA’s equivalent of the Supreme Court). Also included on the list of notables is Benjamin “Bennie” Rabinowitz, a highly successful lawyer and entrepreneur who continues to use his professional success to advance positive dialogue on social justice issues through the endowment of his eponymous lecture, which I was honored to deliver at the University of Cape Town law school.

South Africa’s past has also given rise to a cadre of amazingly insightful academics, both white and of color, who wrestle with memories of apartheid’s effects but continue to work diligently to teach a new generation of South Africans and, through insightful scholarship, further the understanding of policies and socioeconomic issues that undergird the country’s challenges.  These individuals, all lawyers or legal academics, and others too numerous to mention in this piece, strive to ensure that South Africa makes good on its enormous potential.

I leave South Africa enlightened, aware, and encouraged – enlightened by the discovery of a country that, despite the difficulties of its past, has as its present fulcrum a drive for a more just and thriving democracy. I am now aware that the country’s complexity reflects a reality faced by many countries in the world.  In the end, and most significantly, I am encouraged by an indomitable spirit exhibited by many South Africans, some historic, such as the iconic Nelson Mandela, others of the present, such as Bennie Rabinowitz, Albie Sachs, and the academics with whom I conferred.

It gratified me greatly to discover that many of the individuals with whom I met manifested a commitment to the improvement of South Africa’s society – a tenet of professionalism that dates back to such historic lawyers as Sir Thomas More in the 16th century.  This is not to suggest that legally trained individuals have a premium on civic duty.  A number of everyday South Africans whom I encountered, whether they were laborers or professionals, and regardless of race, believed in the possibility of positive change in the face of a complex past. Yet it is clear that those in the legal profession have the skills and means to advance civic responsibility and effectuate change in a meaningful and fundamental manner.

Many of us in the United States and other countries share a spirit similar to that which I saw among the South Africans whom I met.  I trust that this spirit of hope and determination remains a beacon, not only for South Africa, but also for other nations of the world. If that spirit does prevail, we all will be enriched by the dividends of hope and sustained by an appreciation for the diversity of people and perspectives that contribute to thriving democracies.