Order by just values

31 October 2005

At UCT, the tradition of inaugural lectures is well established, but in October the Faculty of Law set a new trend, the valedictory lecture.

This valedictory was given by Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit, who has been professor of criminology since 1982 and was dean of law from 1990 to 1995. In his introduction, Professor Jonathan Burchell outlined an extraordinarily productive career.

"Dirk has written 72 conference papers, has edited or authored seven books, and has 23 chapters in books and 73 articles in South African and international journals. His book Taking Life Imprisonment Seriously in National and International Law won a meritorious publication award at UCT last year. He is, of course, a Fellow of the University of Cape Town."

Van Zyl Smit chose as his theme Imagining the South African Prison. In his opinion, there are many exciting developments. "International prison standards are increasingly offering guidance on what should be done. There have been significant African initiatives in this area, too, such as the Kampala Declaration on Prison Conditions in Africa to which was I privileged to contribute in 1996.

"Following from the Kampala Declaration, an African prison inspectorate was set up under the auspices of the African Commission for Human and Peoples' Rights. The emergence of an international prison inspectorate operating under the United Nations Convention against Torture is also now a real likelihood. I hope that South Africa will shortly sign and ratify the Optional Protocol to the convention, which will bring the new inspectorate into effect.

"Careful scholarship has continued to refine many of the ideas that initially attracted me to this field. Sociologically, we now know more about how order can be maintained by just rules, which can achieve a surprising degree of legitimacy even in the inherently confrontational environment of the prison, and about how dynamic security, based on such rules, can avoid the use of brute force by the authorities.

"In South Africa, dedicated scholars have continued to study controversial aspects of imprisonment, in spite of barriers being placed in their way. But I digress. Empirical researchers have done us proud in recent years. For example, Sasha Geer's Daai Ding, a study of sexual abuse in prison, is a powerful call on us to propose more imaginative ways of managing the deprivation that detention brings to this sphere of prisoners' lives. Prison biography, too, has continued to give us fascinating glimpses of prison reality. Johnny Steinberg's The Number has brought aspects of the coercion exercised by prison gangs to the attention of a wider public. It demonstrates very powerfully the need to reassert the protection that prison law is supposed to grant prisoners, not only against the abuse of official power but also against their fellow prisoners.

"This brings me back to the law and the image of a prison worthy of our constitutional democracy. One of my regrets about leaving now is that there is not yet a new edition of South African Prison Law and Practice, for I had hoped to incorporate much of this new research in order to strengthen the argument for prison law as an effective shield against abuse. It would have been a pleasure, too, to rely directly on the Constitution and the international and comparative law that we may now quote freely as authority. The tragic early death of Ronald Louw robbed me of an enthusiastic collaborator. I hope that some other scholar will come forward to take his place.

"Even allowing for difficulties not of its own making, it is clear that the department did not make sufficient use of the years that it had to prepare to meet the requirements of the Act before it was brought into effect. It should now be held to account publicly and fearlessly where it does not provide what it is constitutionally and legally obliged to do. I hope that the Judicial Inspector will use the clear requirements of the Act, which is now fully in force, as a template for his reports, and that the courts will craft imaginative remedies when prisoners appeal to them because their statutory rights are being violated.

"Finally, as I said at the beginning of this lecture, I did not choose imprisonment as an area of study but drifted into it. In the spirit of one of my early intellectual heroes, C Wright Mills, I have tried to combine the insights of biography and history in order to imagine the South African prison. To this I have added a very un-Mills-like concern with the details of the law and its operation. When I reflect on the actual conditions in South African prisons now, I am not sure we have got there at all; but I have enjoyed the journey and am deeply thankful to all who have accompanied me on it."

(Van Zyl Smit retires at the end of 2005.)

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.