Sojourn in South Africa

Scheper-Hughes Recounts Post-Apartheid Crime and Justice

by Mary Ellen Butler

Ever since she returned from a year as the chair in social anthropology at the University of Capetown, South Africa, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of anthropology, has been wondering, "Who's the killer?"

She asked that provocative question about South Africa's systems of justice in an informal talk on campus titled, "Who's the Killer? Popular Justice and Human Rights in a South African Squatter Camp." The talk was sponsored by the Human Rights Program of the campus-based Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities.

Scheper-Hughes cautioned that she was just "thinking aloud in public," a practice she noted, "I sometimes get in trouble for doing."

Indeed, one of her conclusions may well raise a few eyebrows.

Scheper-Hughes thinks the murder last August by three black South African youths of Stanford student Amy Biehl, who was white, was a political crime--just as under apartheid countless black South Africans were killed for political reasons.

Scheper-Hughes said the youths had just left an African National Congress meeting where "death to the settlers" (white people) was a political chant.

Apartheid "installed violence as a political form of self expression," she said. "There was a war going on and (Biehl's death) was part of that war."

If the South African police get amnesty, as proposed in some cases by the new South African government, and those who killed Biehl don't, she said, "that would be a terrible miscarriage of justice."

Biehl's assailants must also be seen in a larger context, Scheper-Hughes said. They are among millions of young black men who provided manpower for the revolution against apartheid.

Now that apartheid is vanquished, many of those "young lions"--uneducated and unemployed--have no constructive place in the new society, she said.

South African President Nelson Mandela and the new black-majority government have a responsibility to help these youths to get educated and employed, said Scheper-Hughes.

Without constructive outlets, she said, their energies may continue to turn destructive.

Scheper-Hughes said one such outlet are the courts of popular justice that have traditionally helped to keep order in black townships and squatter camps. Black South Africans created the unofficial courts to fill the vacuum left by the lack of fair treatment in the apartheid-controlled South African courts.

In one camp court Hughes observed, black youths dissuaded a mob from executing three boys who had stolen money from a pub.

Instead, the boys were subjected to 50 lashes, still a severe punishment. Scheper-Hughes showed slides of the boys' ghastly wounds while recounting how she helped get the most badly wounded boy to a hospital.

Scheper-Hughes, who is writing a book about her year in South Africa, is no stranger to thought-provoking research. Her previous work has included studies of poor mothers in Brazil who react to extreme deprivation by letting their weakest and sickliest babies die.


Copyright 1994, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail