Alistair Price
Law Faculty, University of Cape Town

It is difficult to drum up widespread, grassroots political support for the rule of law.  In the eyes of many people, the rule of law does not put food on the table.  Worse still, the law can be a source of oppression.  Governments and law-enforcement officials can and do commit crimes.  The role of law in our Apartheid history is an awful example. Understandably, not all South Africans hold the law in high regard.

Nonetheless, the rule of law is of huge importance.  It is a political ideal that we should all be fighting for.  To see why, imagine a hypothetical society where the rule of law is failing.  Plainclothes police officers shoot dead a man they claim was acting suspiciously, but the routine criminal investigation of the killing that would normally follow is obstructed by the police chief.  Legislation is passed conferring broad, vague powers on government officials for ‘the furtherance of national security’, while public scrutiny of their use in the ordinary courts is denied; objections to the breadth and vagueness of these measures are met with responses that the authorities can be trusted to wield their powers fairly. Officials start to disobey court orders systematically.  Magistrates receive anonymous death-threats.  Independently-minded judges are lambasted by high-powered government officials.  Corporate property developers circumvent regulations to protect precious environmental areas, without consistent official response.  Laws designed to protect employees in dangerous workplaces are widely flouted.  Bribes are commonplace.  There is little protection for the honest, hardworking entrepreneur.  Some wrongdoers are prosecuted for their crimes, while others – apparently well-connected – are not.  People start to rely largely on the patronage or mercy of officials to receive state-sponsored benefits.  There is a clampdown on free speech:  investigative journalists and editors are jailed for stories claiming to expose corruption.  Most chilling is the lawless violence.  Murderers are not brought to book.  Worse yet, there are rumours of nameless officials knocking on doors at night and of people disappearing.

That is what a society without the rule of law looks like. Surely no one would want to live there? To make sure we never do in South Africa’s future, we all need to do our bit to protect and promote the rule of law.

So what does the rule of law require? Several things. Most basically, it requires that our society be ruled by law, and not by the arbitrary (often self-interested) decisions of the small group of men and women who happen to wield public and private power at any given point in time.  The law must be applied by law-enforcement agencies consistently and impartially.  Government officials, along with everyone else, should be legally and publicly accountable in the courts.  And the courts must be independent enough – as a matter of institutional design and judicial mind-set – from other state organs to make this a real check on power.  Equally importantly, the laws must provide everyone with reliable guidance in advance about what is legally required, permitted and prohibited.  If the laws are unclear, secret, constantly changing, or retroactive, or if officials and judges do not comply with the law impartially without fear or favour, then it becomes impossible to act within the law.

By itself, the rule of law is not enough to promote justice in South Africa.  We should be careful not to place over-exaggerated faith in the capacity of law to improve society.  It is crucial to respect and promote other political ideals too, like distributive fairness, freedom of speech, and environmental sustainability.  Nonetheless, it is very unlikely that we will succeed in transforming South Africa for the better unless we work hard to maintain the rule of law in the process.  Sticking to the rule of law will help to keep governmental and private power part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.  It will also make society safer. 

What can we do?  First, we cannot simply blame those in government.  We also need to take responsibility ourselves to protect and promote the rule of law.  For example, we can stop speeding on our roads.  We can stop paying bribes.  We can bravely start reporting all suspected crimes, not only crimes against person and property.  We can support our judges, magistrates and court officials, most of whom work tirelessly to uphold the rule of law.  Of course, we must also never cease seeking to hold the government and law-enforcement agencies publicly accountable.  The same goes for powerful private corporations as well as labour unions.  The recent tragedy at Marikana provides a vivid example of a catastrophic failure of the rule of law.  Fostering the rule of law in South Africa, and indeed throughout Africa, could scarcely be more important.  The sooner we all realise this, and start to act upon it, the better.

Alistair Price Law Faculty, University of Cape Town
title bar

Read More

title bar
A finger pushing back against blocks that say "autocracy" so that they say "democracy"

The American Bar Association’s International Law Section recently convened a panel to discuss the global impact of U.S. Democracy under fire as part of its annual “Rule of Law Webathon.” World Justice Project Executive Director Elizabeth Andersen joined the Hon. Andre M. Davis, U.S. Circuit Judge (ret.), U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Cass R. Sunstein, professor at Harvard Law School, and Scott Carlson, associate executive director of global programs for the American Bar Association in a robust discussion about how lawyers can help prevent further backsliding of democracy.  The panel was moderated by the Hon. Delissa A. Ridgway of the U.S. Court of International Trade. 

Read More
An illustration of people interacting with the justice system

WJP Executive Director Elizabeth Andersen recently addressed the American Bar Association’s “Putting People first: People-Centered Justice at Home and Abroad” conference in Washington DC. Andersen used her remarks to define the unmet justice needs experienced by billions around the world and explain how people-centered justice can bridge the justice gap. 

Read More
Gente sale a la calle para protestar en Guayaquil, Ecuador en 2015. Crédito de la foto Michael Müller/iStock

WASHINGTON, 17 de mayo de 2023 - La mayoría de la población de América Latina y el Caribe consideran que su gobierno utiliza la desinformación para moldear la opinión pública a su favor.  Este es sólo un indicio del autoritarismo y de la desconfianza generalizada en los gobiernos de la región, según se desprende de 26 nuevos reportes nacionales sobre el Estado de Derecho publicados hoy por el World Justice Project (WJP).  "Estos reportes representan las voces de las personas en toda América Latina y el Caribe y en cómo perciben y experimentan el Estado de Derecho", dijo Elizabeth Andersen, Directora Ejecutiva del WJP.  "Estamos más contentos que nunca de compartir más datos de nuestras encuestas para ayudar a las diversas partes interesadas a identificar las debilidades del Estado de derecho y desarrollar políticas para hacerles frente." 

Read More
People marching in protest in central streets of Córdoba, Argentina, 2014. Credit: Andres Ruffo/iStock

WASHINGTON May 17, 2023 – The majority of people in Latin America and the Caribbean believe their government is using misinformation to shape public opinion in their favor.  That’s just one indication of authoritarianism and widespread mistrust of government in the region, as captured in 26 new Rule of Law country reports released today by the World Justice Project (WJP).   “These reports represent the voices of the people across Latin America and the Caribbean and how they perceive and experience the rule of law,” said WJP Executive Director Elizabeth Andersen.  “We are excited to share more of our survey data than ever before, to help diverse stakeholders pinpoint rule of law weaknesses and develop policies to address them.” 

Read More