Sakhile Ntshangase

Oct 14, 2021

5 min read

So, (Why) the Law?


The beginning of summer 2019 was filled with excitement. I had just finished taking my final exams and wrapped up my internship at the University of Rochester in New York. Sophomore year had been a wavelength of stressful troughs and successful peaks and I was even more thrilled for my trip back home to South Africa. I had been well oriented to the American upspeak, and welcomed phrases such as “behind the eight ball,” “hitting a home run,” and “deadass” into my vocabulary with unquestioned passivity. I had also found a soft spot for many American traditions including celebrating Thanksgiving celebrations with friends and falling for the hype of Superbowl commercials.

More than the home-cooked meals, South African accents, hot dry summers, and cool wet winters, however, I was even more excited to see and interact with Black people and other People of Color from home. I did not understand this thought, neither could I justify it as I had made a lot of Black friends in Rochester. Naturally, I suspected that booking a South African Airways flight would be a recourse to cure my homesickness. On my way to John F. Kennedy International Airport, I imagined meeting other Black South African international students at the terminal gate, speaking in IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, or in any of our other nine languages that many of us can understand even if we cannot speak. We would share our frustrations over the political commotion caused by the recent resignation of President Jacob Zuma, or, equally, over how bad beef jerky is.

Race was also not a foreign concept to me. Coming to the U.S. from South Africa, I was aware of the racial majority-minority demographical dichotomy, as well as how racism in South Africa and the United States enjoyed some glaring historical and present-day parallels. The 1960s removal of 600,000 Black South Africans, for example, from Cape Town’s District 6 to “native homelands” by the apartheid government — declaring it a “Whites Only Area” — was analogous to urban renewal and gentrification patterns in the 1960s United States. Pass Laws designed to restrict and control Black Africans by mandating them to carry internal passports at all times closely mirrored the Fugitive Slave Act. In both countries, Black populations had fought relentlessly for suffrage as well as for political and economic liberation. Despite progress, however, the end of apartheid and jim crow did not resolve all issues of economic inequality and institutionalized racism which continue to disproportionately cripple populations of color in both countries. Moreover, in South Africa, a decolonial student movement protesting the celebration of legacies of injustice in the form of the removal of statues — including those celebrating white supremacist and staunch imperialist Cecil Rhodes — inspired a U.S. movement to remove confederate monuments. In the same way, conditions highlighted by Black Lives Matter protests decrying racial injustice against police brutality in the United States also spread like wildfire in South Africa, which the World Bank declared the most unequal country in the world in 2019.

Nowhere else did the symbolism of the reality of inequality become alive than at the airport. To my surprise, when I arrived at my flight terminal, almost every passenger getting ready to board was a white individual. Contrary to my expectation, I was one of a handful of people of color getting ready to board the flight. Almost everyone sitting in the stalls was a white individual and I could overhear many of them speaking in Afrikaans. It was a beautiful scene to witness, nonetheless; parents holding their babies, and young people sitting in groups, some reading books, and many on their phones with overhead headphones to their ears. To me, it was a reminder that although we are going to the same country, our destinations were different. Where I was from — a Black South African township — people hardly traveled abroad or got scholarships to prestigious U.S. colleges. Evidently, the historical infrastructure build by apartheid, including highways and railroads, deliberately creating spatial divisions between racial groups and insisting that interactions between white and Black people were as minimal as possible, was still at play. The vestiges of apartheid, a racial caste system that had died 25 years earlier, were still palpably felt across the country, evidenced by frequent protests and cries for wealth distribution. Furthermore, the urban infrastructure created to deliberately displace and exclude Black Africans out of the affluent white core also still existed here. Therefore, most of these South Africans in the airport, I thought, came from a different kind of South Africa than I did, so to speak, if not a different one altogether.

Comparably, in the U.S., Ta-Nehisi Coates observes a more-or-less similar reality, saying,

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with a club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.*

Therefore, if there were to be any more staggering similarities between the oppressive histories shared by these two countries, it is that they were both created and enabled by the law. Apartheid was as much a legal system as jim crow and segregation were. In the same way, I thought to myself, the answers to a better future have to also be found in the margins of legal books, in legal discovery, and in legal policymaking. I was convinced that if a generation of legal scholars was to ever usher in a new era that most movements came short of seeing, I would be a part of them. From racial justice to global warming advocacy, from income equality, and the global fight against women and children abuse, if lawyers and policymakers have historically played a huge role in shaping global policies favorable to themselves before, we can do it again with better-aligned intentions today.

And if I am wrong or even naïve in my thinking, at the very least, the law can expedite the process. It simply has to.


*Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), p. 17.

**Originally submitted as a writing sample for a job application**