South Africa | Dec 2001

What do you think of when you hear the words South Africa? Do you think of a land far away populated with leopards, rhinos, cheetahs, lions, cape buffalos, and elephants? Or do you think of a country that is undergoing tremendous changes, cultural and legal? Do you wonder what the word apartheid really means, or rather what it meant? Do you gather strength and hope from two Nobel Prize winners who lived on the same street in Johannesburg, their names being Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu? Or do you think of slums such as Soweto and tribal villages where old traditions are slowly giving way to development?

Perhaps when you hear the words South Africa, you think of all of these. But in the end, after a brief pause, don’t you wonder what’s really going on in that country so far away? We did, those of us who comprised the U.S. Law Delegation to the Republic of South Africa. We came to South Africa to learn, to experience, to share with our counterparts and to faithfully represent our profession and country. And last, but certainly not least, we came for an adventure.

This is the story of our delegation and of what we learned and experienced. It does not however adequately convey, nor could it, the struggles which the individuals of all colors in South Africa are currently going through.

A Nation on the Verge

The future of South Africa, today, hangs in the balance. Because of its past policy of apartheid the pitfalls are many. In fact, at a dinner with South African hosts I asked whether they thought, at this moment in time, it was the beginning of the beginning, or the beginning of the end for their country. They could not answer.

In order to understand the many crossroads that South Africa faces all at once, it is necessary to understand its past. It is a past of which its people are not proud. It is a past where a white minority ruled the country and in many instances cruelly suppressed the remaining population. Those that ruled made little attempt to educate or train the blacks and colored. It was only a matter of time before this society would fall. And fall it did in February of 1990 when President F.W. de Klerk bowed to the pressures and decided to change directions. But we must be mindful that this pressure was brought about not only by blacks, but also by whites. In fact, our city guide, who is white, told me of marching against apartheid in the mid 1980’s, when she was in college. As the protest grew larger, the state would clamp down even tighter. The college kids that protested were called the purple people, because the police would spray paint them purple in order to catch up with them later.

But that was then, and this is now. South Africa is a complex culture, a country with many faces. In fact equal official status is given to eleven (11) of the languages spoken throughout the country. And what a beautiful country it is. It is a land where mountains meet the ocean. It is a land where fruit grows and birds are plentiful, where penguins and lions live and roam.

It is a country with a new constitution, which speaks of equality, and with a new leadership, which reflects the makeup of its people. But can a country change so rapidly, when it has not built the foundation for the change? We were fortunate enough to witness a tribal court, where there are no rules of evidence and the parties never go away without reconciliation. The search is for the truth and for a solution that all parties can live with. Upon exiting this tribal court, I wondered whether our legal system or theirs comes closer to hitting the mark. But these tribal cultures are being forced to change, because of the new society.

One of the attractions of South Africa is that it is a society that is so dynamic, and is going forward so quickly, Indeed, our delegation was fortunate enough to be standing in the crossroads. It is also a society where the Rule of Law and lawyers can help shape the future. While we were there a landmark court ruling was handed down that forced the government to provide an anti-AIDS drug to pregnant women to help prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

This is a country whose history is unfolding at this very moment. What we found was a beautiful land with beautiful people, whose new constitution is based on freedom, equality and human dignity. What we found is a country with great potential that is now trying to do the right thing and could benefit from our help. It is, after all, a nation on the verge.

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