• Vita

    Olaf Zenker is Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. After earning Master’s degrees in Social Anthropology (LSE) and Linguistics & Literature (University of Hamburg), he did his PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology and the Martin Luther University in Halle. He subsequently joined the Institute of Social Anthropology at the University of Bern (Switzerland) as Assistant Professor, where he also held an Ambizione Research Fellowship (SNSF) and received his Habilitation. Apart from Visiting Fellowships at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa), the University of Cambridge (UK), Harvard University (USA) and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (South Africa), he held Professorships at the University of Cologne, the Freie Universität Berlin and the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). Focusing on Southern Africa, Northern Ireland and Germany, his research has dealt with political and legal issues such as statehood, bureaucracy, the rule of law, normative pluralities, modernity, inequality, justice, conflict and identity formations, as well as sociolinguistics, ethico-onto-epistemologies and philosophical anthropology.

  • Research Project

    Land Restitution and the Moral Modernity of the New South African State

    This legal anthropological project investigates the ongoing South African land restitution process, in which the new state compensates victims of former land dispossessions based on laws discriminating “race”. This restitution process has been the focus of a critical literature, exploring the phenomenon in its interconnected political, legal, economic and moral dimensions. Building on this research, the project addresses a central research gap by focusing on the highly juridified renegotiations of modern statehood that are at the core of South African land restitution, given that the new state simultaneously functions as the main driving force, the judicial arbiter and the core reference point (as claims are lodged against the state). Given that restitution’s explicit mandate is to unmake the historical injustices of the old state, this process is thus crucially concerned with fusing the highly perfected “formal rationality” of the former apartheid state with a different and broadly acceptable “substantive rationality” (Max Weber) into a new, if contested, “morally modern” polity. This project thus studies land restitution as an exemplary site, at which the moral modernity of the new South African state is contested, renegotiated and made in and through the law. In light of the rise and fall, in public perception, of transformative constitutionalism in South Africa, the project thereby also engages with the latest round of public debates around “expropriation without compensation” amidst corrupt conditions of state capture.

  • Selected Publications

    Zenker, Olaf/Walker, Cherryl/Boggenpoel, Zsa-Zsa (eds.) (in preparation), Beyond expropriation without compensation: law, land reform and redistributive justice in South Africa. Cambridge (in preparation).

    Foblets, Marie-Claire/Goodale, Mark/Sapignoli, Maria/Olaf Zenker (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Law and Anthropology, Oxford 2022.

    Hoehne, Makus V./Zenker, Olaf (eds.), The state and the paradox of customary law in Africa. London 2018.

    Zenker, Olaf, Land restitution (old and new), neo-traditionalism, and the contested values of land justice in South Africa, in: Johnson, Jessica/Karekwaivanane, George H. (eds.), Pursuing justice in Africa: competing imaginaries and contested practices. Athens 2018, 243-263.

    Zenker, Olaf, De-judicialization, outsourced review and all-too-flexible bureaucracies in South African land restitution, in: The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 33(1), 2015, 81–96.

    Zenker, Olaf, New law against an old state: land restitution as a transition to justice in post-apartheid South Africa?, in: Development and Change 45(3), 2014, 502-523.