Lunch seminar with Susanne Verheul

Copenhagen University’s Centre of African Studies (CAS), The Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of Law (CIS), and The Centre for International Courts (iCourts) invite you to a lunch seminar  by Dr Susanne Verheul on

 “Material and Sensory Courtrooms: Performing the ‘Decline of Professionalism’ in Harare’s Magistrates’ Courts”

This paper engages with scholarship on how multiple and competing understandings of law and the state are constructed through the physical and symbolic orderings of courtrooms. I expand on literature that examines the architecture and theatricality of courts to focus on how state power and authority were established and critiqued through the material and sensory characteristics of Zimbabwe's Magistrates Courts. I draw on courtroom observations and interviews conducted with human rights lawyers and their clients between 2009 and 2014 to show how Zimbabwe's deteriorating political and economic situation after 2000 caused a decline of the court's material conditions.

Lawyers and their clients played on this decline to emphasise how the state failed to display authority. Simultaneously, the conditions highlighted the government's preoccupation with law's coercive rather than legitimating utility. Through sensory reminders of horrific conditions in police detention the government demonstrated its control over defendants' bodies prior to their appearances in court. Lawyers in turn called attention to their client's dirty, damaged, and smelly bodies in the dock to expose the decline in moral and professional conduct they observed within Zimbabwe. In these performances it was not the authority of law but the control the state exerted on and over the bodies of its citizens that was questioned.

Dr Susanne Verheul is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the Department of International Development, University of Oxford, United Kingdom. Her work in southern Africa, and in Zimbabwe particularly, has examined the place of law in processes of state-making and negotiations over social and political belonging. Her current research focuses on histories of professionalism within a seemingly politicised and polarised judiciary. She has published in leading African Studies journals, and is currently working on a book that explores the relationship between law and state authority in Zimbabwe after 2000, through courtroom performances within political trials. She holds a DPhil and MPhil in International Development from the University of Oxford, and has taught at Oxford and at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands.