Nelson Mandela and the Lawyer as Agent of Social Change

Vol. 22 No. 2

By

Justin Hansford is Assistant Professor of Law at St. Louis University School of Law. Special thanks to Verne Harris, Razia Saleh, Sahm Venter, and the Researchers at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, Dorothy Wheeler, Director of the Johannesburg Bar Archive, and India Geronimo, former law clerk for the South African Constitutional Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for providing the key resources and feedback that made this essay possible. For more information on Nelson Mandela, please visit http://www.nelsonmandela.org/content/page/donors.

On December 5, 2013, a preeminently honorable man, perhaps the most admired in the world, passed away. That man was Nelson Mandela, and he was a lawyer.

Mandela’s surpassing prominence came not from writing a groundbreaking law review article, or from dazzling court watchers with a brilliant closing argument in a high profile trial (save the historic “speech from the dock” that he gave at his own). Mandela’s singular gift to civilization – his inspiration and leadership of South Africa’s peaceful transition from Apartheid rule to multi-racial, constitutional democracy – will not be known by most people as the provision of a “legal service.” Indeed, relatively few among the millions who revere Mandela will perceive the formidable legal mind at work behind his history-making achievements. But as much as anything, it was Mandela’s mastery of the lawyer’s art that enabled him to build a case that changed the world.

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