New Legal Realism Conversations is excited to welcome our newest blogger, Professor Bernadette Atuahene! Bernadette’s work exemplifies the NLR ideal three-part combination of work on law, social science and policy. An attorney fully conversant with the formal law and legal theory, she also conducted field research and interviews in South Africa to examine the question of rights to land and land loss in South Africa. She used her knowledge of law and her empirical research to inform policy in ways that are right now having effects “on the ground” in South Africa. (And, moving even further to a “four-part” combination, she also helped to create a film that publicizes the South African situation). In her first blog post, Bernadette explains how her new legal realist combination of social science and law inspired her work:
New Legal Realism and Justice in South Africa
One goal of scholars who work under the umbrella of New Legal Realism (NLR) is to produce empirical scholarship that impacts policy while maintaining intellectual integrity. This is exactly what I have done with my work in South Africa. My new book, We Want What’s Ours: Learning from South Africa’s Land Restitution Program (Oxford University Press, 2014) is based on 150 interviews that I conducted with people who were robbed of their land rights by the colonial and apartheid governments and who received some type of compensation through the land restitution program. The book develops two concepts: Dignity takings and dignity restoration.
Millions of people all over the world have been displaced from their homes and property. Dispossessed individuals and communities often lose more than the physical structures they live in and their material belongings; they are also denied their dignity. These are dignity takings, and land dispossessions occurring in South Africa during colonialism and apartheid are quintessential examples. There have been numerous examples of dignity takings throughout the world, but South Africa stands apart because of its unique remedial efforts. The nation has attempted to move beyond the more common step of providing reparations (compensation for physical losses) to instead facilitating dignity restoration, which is a comprehensive remedy that seeks to restore property while also confronting the underlying dehumanization, infantilization, and political exclusion that enabled the injustice. Dignity restoration is the fusion of reparations with restorative justice. We Want What’s Ours provides a snapshot of South Africa’s successes and failures in achieving dignity restoration.
Most importantly, as this clip from the Johannesburg book launch shows, the Deputy Land Claims Commissioner announced that the Commission has adopted 90% of the book’s recommendations: ttps://youtu.be/fjGBhQkhTVw This is the sweet spot for NLR scholars: carefully collected data having a positive impact on policy and the lives of the most vulnerable among us. This outcome was no coincidence. It involved years of building a strong relationship with the leaders of the institution I studied (the Land Claims Commission) and taking time to find out how I could collect data on topics of immediate concern to them while also collecting data on theoretically important topics.
While NLR scholars produce scholarship that uses data to help us understand the most complicated social issues of our day, our goals do not stop there. We also ideally take measures to ensure our work is disseminated widely. The NY Times, LA Times and several other newspapers have published my op-eds about the book. We Want What’s Ours has also received extensive TV, radio and print coverage in the US and South Africa. With colleagues, I also created a nonprofit called Documentaries to Inspire Social Change (www.discwebsite.org), which produced an 18 min. documentary about one South African family’s fight to regain their land stolen by apartheid authorities. While books reach a wider audience than academic articles, film is the way to reach and educate larger groups of people.
The book, documentary film, op-eds and TV as well as radio appearances ensure that knowledge about land dispossession in South Africa is not trapped in the ivory tower, but instead reaches outside of university spaces to the broader population. This is what NLR scholarship is all about.
For more about the book: wewantwhatsours.com