The Discourse of Rights in Colonial South Africa

Subjectivity, Sovereignty, Modernity

Publication Date:

Journal: Identities, Politics, and Rights

Reissue Date:

Editors: Austin Sarat and Thomas R Kearns

Publisher City: Ann Arbor

It has become commonplace to note the centrality of law in the colonization of the non-European world: commonplace to assert its role in the fashioning of new Eurocentric hegemonies, in the creation of colonial subjects, in the rise of various forms of resistance. Historically-speaking, the manner in which legal sensibilities and practices entered into colonizing processes, into their dramatic gestures and prosaic theaters, turns out to have been more subtle, less audible, murkier, than is often suggested, all the more so as Euromodernist regimes of rule encountered vernacular (so-called “customary”) law at various edges of empire. This essay seeks to explore how imperial legal sensibilities and the discourse of rights figured in the colonization of the South African interior – one rather more complex and nuanced than is captured by received oppositions between citizen and subject, colonizer and colonized. In particular, it focuses on the frontier at which the earliest emissaries of empire engaged peoples who would become known as “the” Tswana, thus to interrogate the forms of identity and imagining to which the encounter gave rise as two cultures of legality engaged with one another. As it would tune out, that encounter would have effects of the long run that have reached into the political life of post-apartheid South Africa.

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