Law, Lawyers, and Transformation in Democratic South Africa

Reflections on Field Study

Poet Ross Gay writes about a phenomenon that he dubs “The Negreeting”—a creative merger of the words Negro and greeting. It’s that quick nod and slight smile that black people in America—and especially black people in predominantly white spaces—give to one another, by way of acknowledgment of the other’s presence and goodness in a country where the black body is often coded as dangerous, suspicious, guilty.

I was in Cape Town on field study with Stanford Law’s Law, Lawyers, and Transformation in Democratic South Africa and I didn’t Negreet once. If I had, I might have spent the entirety of the trip with my head bobbing up and down, a slight smile on my face. When blackness is omnipresent in all of its different iterations, Negreeting is redundant. Even in a country so plagued by the vestiges of apartheid, blackness was felt and seen, anchoring the visual landscape of the city.

Lisa Muloma, JD ’21, Ola Abiose, JD ’20 (PhD ‘24), and Arielle Andrews, JD ’21, on field study in South Africa (photo courtesy Lisa Muloma)

There was our first night together, our cadre of 12 law students accompanied by Professor Jamie O’Connell and teaching assistant Dr. Gilat Bachar poking along behind Jameel, our relentlessly cheerful tour guide. As we made our way toward dinner, we peeked into the windows of various buildings. And look! Here was a trendy space full of the well-dressed, black, Capetonian intelligentsia, listening as a poem was read aloud. And look! Here was a Coca-Cola billboard featuring a brown-skinned girl with closely cropped curls. And look! Here was a black restaurant manager asking us what we would like for dinner, wearing the curt, slightly disapproving look unique to purveyors of fine dining the world over. For the black law students in the group, there was no longer a need for huddling, for carving ourselves out of some monolith.

Our class was the lucky first group of randomly chosen students given the chance to travel to Cape Town on Stanford Law School’s dime to explore the role of public interest law, lawyers, and litigation in the unique context of South Africa. Following summer law internships, we arrived in Palo Alto on September 9 to begin a weekly “intensive.” We read widely, parsing legal texts analyzing South Africa’s uniquely progressive constitution, personal histories detailing the sometimes brutal or banal violence endured by people of color living under apartheid, activist texts, reporterly pieces, films, and more.

After a week of study, we were still dilettantish, but literate enough to be able to ask a few questions of the Capetonian lawyers and dignitaries and activists and bus drivers we would meet the following week. And on the evening of September 15, there we were, and there I was, following Jameel, involuntarily grinning because, well, I just love black people.

Of course, I am aware that it’s all relative, that it’s a bit ironic that I was reveling in the blackness of the only predominantly white African city south of the Sahara. I also recognize the irony of the fact that I was blown away by the multiplicity of black expression and black wealth in a country where 30.4 percent of Black Africans are unemployed and corruption prevents thousands of black schools from having books and plumbing, let alone quality teaching.

I remember the hush that came over our whole travel bus as we left the Cape Town bubble and entered miles and miles of Khayelitsha, a shack town—small black children with distended bellies standing cow-eyed next to ramshackle homes; roving cadres of young black men walking briskly, huddled together; corrugated tin structures with drooping hand-painted signs, one reading “Lungile’s salon”; a cover of clouds sitting heavy above us all. What I mean is if we’d spent all of our time in Khayelitsha or the Cape Flats or any number of similar places where a plurality of black and colored people in South Africa live, I might not be writing this reflection in the same glowing terms. In such a case, I likely still wouldn’t Negreet, but it wouldn’t be because of some triumphant sense of belonging and ownership; it would be because of its direct opposite—shame. The shame of seeing millions of people who look a little bit like me warehoused in the margins of society, cut off from their own capacities to dream and create and ascend.

“When blackness is omnipresent in all of its different iterations, Negreeting is redundant. Even in a country so plagued by the vestiges of apartheid, blackness was felt and seen, anchoring the visual landscape of the city.”

Lisa Muloma, JD ’21

Our trip to South Africa taught me much, but mostly left me with what I feel is a productive tension—between the capability of the law and the limits of the law. We encountered the ecstatic optimism of a constitution made to enshrine the rights of oppressed people—introduced to the world by Nelson Mandela, one of the most admired men of recent times. We also encountered the distrust and cynicism that accompany 25 years of structurally flawed implementation. Tension. The law as something that creates a theoretical space for justice, that makes claims upon human rights legible, but does not ensure continuous, thorough, and equal application. Greater minds than mine have written about what is to be done about this tension, what it is to make real the promises of the law. I don’t know. I suspect it looks something like an intentional national acknowledgment of pain and injury, tangible and intangible. I suspect it takes a very long time. But there is a café in downtown Cape Town full of the trendy black intelligentsia, and maybe that should count for something.

So in conclusion, I loved this trip. I loved being surrounded by black lawyers and black educators and black academics and activists. I loved the experience of being clothed in my skin in Cape Town. I don’t know that I fully trust the delight that I feel as I think back on our time together in South Africa; I only know that it’s there and I like it. And now that we’re back in Palo Alto, I’m again in the habit of Negreeting.

Lisa Muloma is a 2L who aspires to be a public defender. Last summer, she was a law clerk at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Northern District of California, and this summer she will intern in Manhattan with the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Unit. At SLS she is the co-president of the Black Law Students Association, the Criminal Law Society, and the storytelling collective First Person. SL