Featured Q&A: The Verdict is in

Q&A: The Verdict is in

A legal scholar blogging about constitutional law  doesn’t sound like a riveting proposition in  a digital media space already congested with  talking heads. Think again. Unlike many self-styled  editorialists, who arrive at the big debates of the day  with an arsenal of adjectives and little else, University  of Cape Town scholar Pierre de Vos brings something  far simpler to the table: the law.  He understands it intimately. In  anticipation of his Think!Fest talk, Cue asked De Vos why  he started blogging about a three letter  word that, for better or worse,  is a part of everyone’s daily life.

Have you been to Festival before?

I have attended the Festival a few  times, the first time when I was still  a student back in, I think, 1988.  From that first event I recall being  enthralled by a performance of the  singer Jennifer Ferguson, who later  served as an ANC MP in Parliament  before she got bored and left politics.

What’s your favourite genre?

I love modern dance as well as theatre. I am  planning to see as many shows as I can fit in while in  Grahamstown. I am particularly looking forward to  The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri, Ndebele Funeral,  and the concert by Mi Casa.

Pierre de Vos. Photo: Aaliyah Tshabalala

Pierre de Vos. Photo: Aaliyah Tshabalala

Any artistic talents that we don’t know about?

If I were to sing or dance or play a musical instrument  on stage it will cause a stampede for the exit! I have  no talent to sing or dance or act. However, I do dabble  in creative writing and some years ago I had a novel  published – in Afrikaans. It dealt with a white boy  coming to terms with the fact that his father had been  a member of an apartheid hit squad.

Any biographical truths in it?

My father was not a security policeman (or any kind  of policeman; rather a lawyer) so that part of the  novel is an invention. Although my mother rather  identified herself with the mother in the novel – and  was not amused by the sex scenes.

You’re speaking on panel at Think!Fest with  Conrad Koch. Are you a fan of Chester Missing? 

I love Chester. Still deciding about Conrad… no,  only kidding! I think the fact that  a white comedian uses a puppet of  ambivalent race to engage with South  Africa’s reality is both brave and  complicated. It pushes the boundaries,  but it is always aware of those  boundaries and it seems as if Conrad  is constantly grappling with the ethics  of being a satirist – a white satirist – in  a country with such a horrific history  of white domination. It must be very  difficult. But I think even when he  gets it wrong, he gets it wrong in an  interesting and challenging way.

Satire is a big talking point at Festival  this year. When does the law and satire clash?

I suspect that in a country like South Africa with  its particular history of racial subjugation satire  is particularly complicated. However, there is a  difference between what is ethically appropriate  and what is legally allowed. There is no law that  prohibits comedians or satirists from making  jokes that perpetuate racist, sexist or homophobic  stereotypes, for example. But surely you have an  ethical responsibility not to be a complete asshole,  so maybe stay away from those jokes. My general  rule is that it is always funnier to ridicule the  powerful and the power structures than to ridicule  the vulnerable and marginalised.

Has your blogging eclipsed your day job?

Oh dear. I hope I remain a legal scholar, even as  I try and play a more public role to advance ideas  about constitutionalism and to promote the values  enshrined in the Constitution. I started the blog  Constitutionally Speaking at a time when I felt  uninspired by legal academia and when I had a  bout of writer’s block. The blog quickly cured me of  that. It took on a life of its own as more journalists  started contacting me for comment on legal issues  relating to current affairs. My scholarship informs  my public engagement and vice versa, and I enjoy  doing both.

So you’re a legally-minded social commentator.  That’s pretty rare locally.

I think it is very important for academics to be more  engaged and responsive to the social and economic  injustice in our society and to use our skills and  knowledge to the best of our ability (perhaps  with a drop or two of humility) to try and make a  difference. It is a pity that more legal academics are  not prepared to engage in the public space because  it can help to arm citizens with knowledge about an  important sphere of our lives. To some extent, there  is a worrying tendency in South Africa to juridify  politics, which can be disempowering for those  affected by the exercise of power by the state and by  powerful private institutions. One way to counter  this is to provide accurate and concise analysis in  the media of legal issues and how it impacts on  people’s lives.

“Juridify politics”? Help!

The juridification of politics happens when almost  every political question or dispute is turned into  a legal dispute and when citizens and civil society  groups automatically turn to courts when they want  to influence political events. But if we turn to courts  too often and fail to engage in political struggles, we  really depoliticise society and take power away from  citizens.

Megan Whittington
Cue student reporter

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