Law, Society, and Economy: Centenary Essays for the London School of Economics and Political Science, 1895-1995

By Richard Rawlings | Go to book overview

11 Legality, Modernity, and Ethnicity in Colonial South Africa: An Excursion in the Historical Anthropology of Law*

JOHN L. COMAROFF


INTRODUCNON

In The Campaign, a Carlos Fuentes novel of colonialism and liberation in South America, there lurks, amidst a welter of heroic acts and epic events, a brief, enigmatic exchange:

'The Law', says one revolutionary, 'is the greatest thing imaginable.' 'That's true', answers his compadre, 'because it's absurd.'

A luta continua. The battle goes on. But the revolutionaries--alibis all for Fuentes' reading of history--agree to one thing: the almost absurd centrality of law in both European overrule and the struggle against it.1

As with Latin America, so with Africa. It has become commonplace to remark the salience of the legal culture of Britain in the colonization of the continent; commonplace to assert its role in the fashioning of new European hegemonies, in the creation of subjects of Empire, in the rise of various forms of resistance, in the demands of so-called 'Third World' peoples for both individual rights and collective entitlements.2

____________________
*
A revised version of a lecture delivered on 15 May 1995. An earlier, somewhat different version of this essay, entitled "'The Discourse of Rights in Colonial South Africa'", appeared in A. Sarat & T. Kearns, Identities, Politics, and Rights ( Ann Arbor, 1995); an extended one will appear as Chapter 8 in J. L. Comaroff & J. Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa Vol. 2 ( Chicago, forthcoming). In annotating unpublished archival sources, I refer to the London Missionary Society as the LMS; its records are part of the Council of World Mission (CWM) papers held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Housed there too are the archives of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS), to which reference is also made. Letters, journals, and reports are identified by author, place and date of writing; also given, in each case, is the archival category, box, folder, and jacket in which the document is housed at SOAS.
1
C. Fuentes, The Campaign ( New York, 1992). See 202, 211-2.
2
See K. Mann & R. Roberts (eds.), Law in Colonial Africa ( London, 1991) for a comprehensive overview of recent scholarship on the topic; also S. E. Merry, "'Law and Colonialism: Review Essay'" ( 1991) 25 Law and Society Review 889; and S. F. Hirsch & M. Lazarus-Black , "'Introduction'", in M. Lazarus-Black & S. F. Hirsch (eds.), Contested States: Law, Hegemony, and Resistance ( New York, 1994).

-247-

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