First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
I have previously told the story of how I decided at 12 years old that I wanted to be a lawyer. At that moment of putting words to my dreams with ease, I had no sense of all the human struggle that cleared the way for me to have such an ambition and to regard it my birthright. And just as easily as I made the declaration, the path to my law degree was unobstructed.
With each degree I obtained my parents insisted on celebrating. I resisted the fuss and sometimes actively thwarted their plans. What was the big deal? I knew about 50 other people just like me who had done what I had done. It’s not as though I had made it to space. There was nothing novel about my achievement. Now that I am older and wiser I regret not leaning in to my parents’ joy.
Throughout our history, the oppression of black people was rationalised by ill-conceived, illogical stereotypes and beliefs that were legitimised by legislation. It was law that helped create the idea of race. It was law that filled the fiction of race with meaning. Exclusionary laws gave authority to the myth of the intellectual inferiority of black people.
In her incredibly important book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson writes that “in all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life”. Wilkerson explains how, after the Civil War in the United States, some states explicitly prohibited black people from performing any labour other than farm or domestic work, setting their place in the caste system.
South Africa is one of the most notorious legal prototypes of a caste system. Under apartheid there were a myriad laws that kept black people from work deemed above them. For example, in 1951 the Native Building Workers Act was passed, fixing a separate and inferior status for African building workers. They were prohibited from performing skilled work anywhere except in African areas or on white farms.
The legal profession was not closed to black people. But the pursuit of a career in law was made incredibly difficult. One of the barriers to law was the introduction of Bantu education, which was meant to ensure the ill-preparedness of black people for any rigorous career. There was a maze of laws that ensured the systematic exclusion of those who were able to qualify as lawyers. The entire enterprise of apartheid was to stigmatise black people as an incapable people.
Another structural barrier to a legal profession was the fact that most black people regarded SA’s legal system as morally bankrupt. Even those who practised in this system did so with contempt.
The earliest available statistics of the number of black people in the legal profession, according to Lisa Pruitt, an academic, are those of the 1960s, when black people collectively represented 1.5% of attorneys.
To be more specific, of about 3,000 attorneys who were practising in 1962, black people numbered 13. It is against these stark numbers that my easily stated ambition to be a lawyer seemed, to a generation that came of age under apartheid, like I was reaching for the stars. This is why my parents wanted to celebrate.
As we mark Human Rights Month, it is important to highlight section 22 of the Constitution, which declares that every citizen has the right to choose their trade, occupation or profession freely.
This is one of the least talked about rights in our Constitution. But against the history of master and servant laws, job reservation and laws that entrapped black dreams, this section takes on deeper meaning. It affirms that the law no longer assumes our intellectual inferiority. As a start, the Constitution says that your dreams are valid. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.