The Cloistered Virtue: Freedom of Speech and the Administration of Justice in the Western World

By Barend Van Niekerk | Go to book overview

FOREWORD

In 1981, shortly after completing the manuscript of The Cloistered Virtue, Barend van Niekerk died at the age of 42. He left a wife, Traute, and two small daughters, Kristine and Marijke. An inveterate traveler, he died of a heart attack on a visit to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, some 12,500 feet above sea level, where he had gone despite medical warnings that his high blood pressure would not permit travel to high altitudes. Thus South Africa lost its most active and controversial civil rights campaigner, whose interventions had raised the temperature of debate in almost every civil rights issue for over a decade. In a country in which human rights violations are many and activists are few, Barend van Niekerk succeeded in stimulating public debate on so wide a range of subjects as the country's archaic Sunday observance laws, capital punishment, race discrimination in law enforcement, police torture, censorship, press freedom, and the role of the judge, lawyer, and academic in an unjust society. He wrote prolifically and spoke courageously in a manner that was often considered neither politic nor polite by his own staid profession. Many disagreed strongly with his writings, his speeches, and his actions. But no one could ignore him. He was a vital, vibrant force who demanded a response. On occasion the South African government responded in a heavy-handed manner, but all its attempts to silence him failed. The present study bears eloquent testimony to this failure.

Barend van Niekerk was born into the White Tribe of Africa -- the Afrikaners, whose political mouthpiece, the National Party, has governed South Africa since 1948, with its policy of apartheid or separate development, as it is now euphemistically called. He attended an Afrikaans school and university and devoted himself energetically to the cause of Afrikaner nationalism throughout his high school and undergraduate days. Indeed, when I first met Barend as a fellow student at the University of Stellenbosch in the 1950s, his zealous support for the National Party exceeded that of his peers. For not only was he active in the work of the National Party youth movement, but he proudly advertised this allegiance by flying a party flag on his motor scooter. Characteristically, political change came to him not through reflection but through action. Incensed by student rudeness at a meeting addressed by the liberal Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, the Right Reverend Joost de Blank, he publicly disavowed the National Party demonstrators and apologized for their insulting behavior. That night he made his choice. He was not to conform again.

After graduating from the University of Stellenbosch, Barend van Niekerk studied abroad in Germany, France, and Italy. His studies were not limited to law, but spread into the fields of politics, philosophy, history, language, and literature. He traveled widely in Europe and Africa and became proficient in German, French, Spanish, and Italian. In 1965, a doctorate in history was conferred on him by the University of Strasbourg for a dissertation on

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