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Author ORCID Identifier


Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Political Science

Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Lauren McCarthy

Second Advisor

Frederic Schaffer

Third Advisor

Regine Spector

Fourth Advisor

Nicholas Rush Smith

Subject Categories

Comparative and Foreign Law | Comparative Politics | Law and Politics | Law and Society | Social Justice


My dissertation explores ordinary Black South Africans' perceptions of the law and how these perceptions impact their views of the desirability and appropriateness of appealing to courts when they have problems accessing constitutionally guaranteed services. Specifically, I study why people choose not to use courts to secure access to water, healthcare, education, and housing when it is both legal and possible to do so. Since it transitioned to democracy, South Africa has become one of the leaders of socioeconomic rights protection through courts. It is globally recognized for its progressive constitution buttressed by an expansive system of rights and a powerful Constitutional Court empowered to enforce them. The post-apartheid Constitution granted everyone the right to have access to adequate housing, health care services, sufficient food and water, and basic education to remedy the inequalities created by apartheid. Since its adoption, the Constitutional Court has been active in enforcing these rights. Considering this context, we might expect a high demand for justice and an inclination to turn to courts for basic services among ordinary South Africans, especially after twenty-five years of democracy. Despite the central place of rights in post-apartheid democracy, my dissertation shows that ordinary Black South Africans have developed doubts about the utility of rights and the law as meaningful institutions. And even though South Africa is commonly hailed for its record of aggressive socioeconomic rights protection, my interviewees rarely expressed willingness to use courts to lay claims to these rights­––even when they were in dire need. I argue that an individual's choice to litigate depends on how they interpret the lack of access, the alternative solutions they believe are possible, and the perceived risks of turning to courts given South Africa's political and legal corruption. These findings are derived from multi-sited fieldwork across the KwaZulu-Natal province and Johannesburg. My findings help move scholarship away from the assumption that litigation is a desirable, feasible, and even thinkable way to solve rights problems and towards a focus on how perceptions of the legal and political system's inner workings can impact legal mobilization.