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Colloquium debates law, human rights and constitutionalism

On 18 and 19 May 2017 the Wits School of Law together with the South African Journal on Human Rights (SAJHR) hosted a colloquium themed Conquest, Constitutionalism and Democratic Contestations.



Over two days, participants presented papers reflecting on the ways in which colonial conquest has shaped law and politics in the present, and also to what extent the new constitutional order has redressed the legacy of colonial-apartheid.  Different perspectives and approaches came to the fore as each of the panels elicited rich debate and contestation over how we understand or respond to the pressing political and jurisprudential questions posed by the manifest tensions and inequalities facing South Africa today.

The conference had three keynote speakers: Prof Mogobe Ramose, Judge Dennis Davis and Prof Shireen Hassim.  Prof Ramose opened the conference with an African philosophical reflection on life, justice and truth in the context of South Africa.  He traced the significance of Africa as the root of human existence and called for justice and reparations as a way of restoring the historical injuries of colonial conquest.  The problem of land dispossession and epistemicide were highlighted by Prof Ramose as issues needing urgent attention.  Along the same lines, Judge Davis posed the provocative question of whether the Constitution is an obstacle to postcolonial justice.  Answering the question in the negative, Judge Davis pushed for legal scholars to take seriously the need for socio-economic justice and racial redress, and urged constitutional scholars to engage seriously with these issues in their scholarship. 

Prof Hassim emphasized the theme of gender and the role of South African women in the constitution-making process of the early 1990s.  From the perspective of feminist theory, Prof Hassim sought to illustrate how the South African women’s movement often formulated demands for liberation that were more radical and imaginative in their reach and catered for racial, class and sexual differences.  Importantly Prof Hassim urged scholars to theorise from below and take seriously the ideas of social movements in scholarship on the Constitution. 

More broadly, under the auspices of the SAJHR, a leading South African law journal, the colloquium was aimed at enriching scholarly conversation and debate on law, human rights and constitutionalism.  The papers from this colloquium will be published in an upcoming issue of the SAJHR and video recordings of the event will soon be uploaded.  In this way the SAJHR aims to contribute to growing public discourse on issues of inequality, racism, poverty and land as these have bearing on the future of the constitutional-democratic project that our nation embarked upon many years ago.  In an attempt to better contextualize the emerging public discourse around these issues, a selection of relevant articles published by the SAJHR, since its inception in 1985, has been compiled into a virtual special issue that is available for free online and can be accessed here

To view photographs from the colloquium click here