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Legal Education and Litigation

For those who have learned about the history of South Africa only through the last phase of the antiapartheid struggle, which led to the 1994 liberation, it is difficult to comprehend how totalitarian South African society became under apartheid. The oral histories collected as part of the Carnegie Corporation oral-history project include the perspective of lawyers and judges whose consciences spurred them to action. Carnegie, along with other foundations in Europe and the United States, supported the creation of two very important extra-governmental institutions in the late 1970s to combat apartheid from within. These were the Legal Resources Centre, which founded public-interest law in South Africa, and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, which litigated high-profile cases of abuse to attract the interest of the international community. Through these institutions, judges and lawyers worked for more than two decades to educate South Africans about their existing rights under the law, and to expand those rights. Through the creation of public-interest law and the development of new constitutional standards, Carnegie Corporation supported the gradual loosening of apartheid's grip. Arthur Chaskalson, founder of the Legal Resources Centre, went on to become the first judge-president of the Constitutional Court in the new South Africa.

Interviews available on this site collectively tell the story of how a multiracial coalition of judges, lawyers, and educators began to transform South African society more than two decades before the transition into democracy in 1994. These men and women of conscience, bound together by a common belief that freedom must be won even if it is not seen in their lifetimes, succeeded in helping Nelson Mandela and his deputies reverse the racist legacy of apartheid and restore the rule of law. The meaning of this reversal is powerfully illustrated in the life story of Fikile Bam, who was imprisoned with Mandela for more than a decade in Robben Island, and later became judge-president of the Land Claims Court. In his moving oral history, Judge Bam recounts the kindness Mandela showed him while imprisoned on the birthday they shared. Mandela, aware of the sacrifice that the young activist Bam had made, convinced the guards to let him appear at Bam's prison cell at dawn on their birthdays, presenting Bam with small gifts each year. This story is symbolic of the strength and solidarity of South Africans in building a liberation movement decades before their freedom was won.

— Mary Marshall Clark, Director of the Oral History Research Office