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Centre of African Studies: Research


Professing the Law: African Lawyers, Politics and the State in Zimbabwe, 1950-2010

This is a three-year project (2015-2018) that is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and is led by George Karekwaivanane. It investigates the history of African lawyers in Zimbabwe between 1950 and 2010, and pays particular attention to their roles as legal intermediaries, public intellectuals, politicians, and ‘cultural entrepreneurs’. 

Why Study African Lawyers

There is now a broad and sophisticated historical and anthropological literature that deals with the ways that law was deployed instrumentally and discursively by states and citizens in colonial and post-colonial Africa.  However, despite the fact that lawyers played central roles as “authorized interpreters” of the law and as intermediaries in these legal struggles, they have received very limited attention in the literature.

The project begins from the premise that African lawyers are important, both as subjects in their own right, and as prisms through which to study the intersections between law, politics and society in Africa.  In examining the history of legal professionals the project also seeks to intervene in key debates in the field of African Studies.  Analysing their political agency in historical perspective, for example, allows for a rethinking of arguments about the displacement of politics into the courts in postcolonial Africa.  In addition, exploring the professional and personal ethics of lawyers allows for a nuancing of the narratives about African politics that tend to dwell on violence, tyranny and corruption.  Furthermore, thinking about African lawyers as translators and ‘cultural entrepreneurs’ casts a light on their role in moulding the legal consciousness of, and fostering the imaginary of rights-bearing citizenship amongst their African clientele.

For some early findings on the history of African lawyers in Zimbabwe see : G. H. Karekwaivanane, "‘Through the narrow door': Narratives of the first Generation of African Lawyers in Zimbabwe", Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 86 No. 1, 2016.