The study of the long-term history of what has been known since 1960 as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is possible largely because of inhabitants’ early embrace of Islam in the 8th century. While research on the early pre-Islamic history of the region is limited by the availability of sources to primarily the archaeological, the arrival of Islam through trade networks crossing the Sahara from North Africa meant that Arab merchants and explorers supplied and produced knowledge about the region’s inhabitants, polities, and natural resources that was then written down in Arabic by Muslim chroniclers and historians. Early Muslims were largely Kharijite and Ibadi but the 11th-century Almoravid reformist and educational movement ensured that the region’s Muslims would predominantly follow Sunni Islam as defined by the Maliki school of law and ʿAshari theology. By the time the Almohad empire succeeded the Almoravid in the 12th century, important centers of Islamic scholarship were emerging in major trading towns in the Sahara and along the Senegal River. The expansion of Sufi thought and practice, the arrival of the Arabic-speaking Banu Hassan, and the subsequent development of political entities known as emirates occurred in ensuing centuries and played a part in the genesis of a social structure that valorized the Arabic language, the study of Islam, and claims of descent from the Prophet Muhammad. The arrival of European merchants in the 15th century and the subsequent colonization of the region by the French led to rapid changes in the economic and cultural bases of political authority and social hierarchy, with colonial policy largely valorizing Sufi leaders as political interlocutors and community representatives. Independence from France in 1960 meant the establishment of an Islamic Republic whose laws are based on a mixed legal system of Maliki Islamic and French civil law. The basis of presidential rule is not religious in nature, though presidents have increasingly used a discourse of religion to legitimize their rule in the face of internal political opposition and external threats from extremist groups such as al-Qaʿeda.
Definitions of and explanations for mental illness differ between societies and have changed over time. Current use of the term arises from secular and materialist epistemologies of the body and mind, influential from the 18th century, which rejected the spiritual or supernatural as causes of illness. Since the 19th century, a specialist body of study, of law, practices, professionals, and institutions developed to investigate, define, diagnose, and treat disorders and illnesses of the mind. This was the emergence of psychiatry and of a professional psychiatric sector. With origins in the West, at a time of capitalism and imperialism, psychiatry was brought to South Africa through colonialism, and its development has been strongly influenced by the country’s economic, political, ideological, and medico-scientific histories. There have been significant continuities: the sector has always been small, underfunded, and prioritized white men. Black patients were largely neglected. Discrimination and segregation were constant features, but it is helpful to identify three broad phases of the history of the psychiatric sector in South Africa. First, its most formative period was during colonial rule, notably from the mid-1800s to c. 1918, with an institutional base in asylums. The second broad phase lasted from the 1920s to the 1990s. A national network of mental hospitals was created and changes in the ways in which mental illnesses were classified occurred at the beginning of this period. Some new treatments were introduced in the 1930s and 1950s. Law and the profession’s theoretical orientations also changed somewhat in the 1940s, 1960s, and 1970s. Institutional practice remained largely unchanged, however. A third phase began in the 1980s when there were gradual shifts toward democratic governance and the progressive Mental Health Act of 2002, yet continued human rights violations in the case of the state duty of care toward the mentally ill and vulnerable.
In the colonial and postcolonial period, African women have advocated for legal reforms that would improve the status of women across the continent. During the colonial period, European common and civil law systems greatly influenced African indigenous legal systems and further entrenched patriarchal aspects of the law. In the years since independence, women’s rights advocates have fought, with varying degrees of success, for women’s equality within the constitution, the family, the political arena, property rights, rights to inheritance, rights to be free from gender-based violence, rights to control their reproductive lives and health, rights to education, and many other aspects of life. Legal developments at the international, national, and local levels reflect the efforts of countless African women’s rights activists to improve the status of women within the region.
Increasingly, the study of law in colonial Africa has moved out of the domain of legal scholarship per se, where it had its origins in the 1940s, and into that of social and cultural history; it has also shifted from a rules-based approach, primarily concerned with legal codes and judicial institutions, to one that focuses on process and explores the complex relationship between law and culture. As the field has expanded, it has divided into sub-branches. Some remain within the scope of legal history, defined as the study of how legal codes and judicial procedures have developed and changed and of the issues of principle that arose; others are more concerned with the social impact of law, how the establishment of colonial legal regimes, including customary law and the courts where cases could be heard, presented new dilemmas and opportunities and altered the distribution of power in African communities. Beyond this, historians have also used legal records, especially court records, as social documents without being directly concerned with their particular legal and judicial contexts. Once their limitations and the difficulties of interpretation that they present have been understood, such records offer potentially rich insights into family and household affairs as well as into more obviously civil or criminal matters.
Moringe ole Parkipuny addressed the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UNWGIP) in 1989 and, for the first time, opened up discussion of the idea that certain groups of hunter-gathers and pastoralists in Africa merited the status of indigenous peoples. Local activists and international organizations took up the cause in the following decades. Several international conferences resulted in new forms of activism, the reformulation of local identities, and a growing body of scholarship addressing African indigeneity. As NGOs built solidarity among relatively scattered groups of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, often skeptical state governments initially resisted what they saw as demands for recognition of status and claims to “special rights.” Disagreements between state interests and newly organized indigenous groups were expressed at the United Nations during the process of adopting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP); but as the idea of indigeneity evolved through such discussions, African governments gradually came on board. International activism and work done by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights play significant roles in convincing African states to accept the concept of “indigenous peoples.” The issue of developing a definition of “indigenous peoples” appropriate for Africa remains unsettled and continues to present challenges. Mobilization among marginalized groups on the African continent itself, however, has presented NGOs, activists, states, and courts with the opportunity, through well-publicized struggles and several landmark legal cases, to refine the category to better fit with African contexts.
Since 1913, the “land question” in South Africa has revolved around the major inequalities in access to and rights over land between the black majority and the white minority of the population, and how these disparities should best be understood and overcome. The roots of this inequality are commonly traced back to the promulgation of the Natives Land Act in June 1913, which provided the legal framework for the subsequent division of the country into a relatively prosperous white heartland and a cluster of increasingly impoverished black reserves on the periphery. Historians have cautioned against according this legislation undue weight within the much longer history of colonization, capitalist penetration, and agrarian change that has shaped modern South Africa. The spatial divide of white core and black periphery has, however, been central to the political economy of 20th-century South Africa. Beginning in the 1950s, the apartheid government attempted to maintain white hegemony, drive an urban–industrial economy, and deflect political resistance by turning these reserves into the ethnic “homelands” of African people. This involved increasingly repressive policies of urban influx control, population relocation, and the tribalization of local administration in the reserves.
Since the transition to democracy in 1994, the post-apartheid state has struggled to develop an effective land reform program that can address the crosscutting demands for land redistribution, local development, and representative government that this history has bequeathed. For many analysts, these ongoing challenges mean that “the land question” remains unresolved; for others it means that the question is itself in need of reformulation. In order to review these developments, a three-part periodization is used to organize the discussion: (1) the segregation era (1910–1948), (2) the apartheid era (1948–1990), and (3) the transition to democracy and the post-apartheid era that began in 1990.