||Customary law in South Africa was transformed by its incorporation into the colonial and later Apartheid state. In this regard, the work of colonial administrators and scholars were important as their visions of idealised ‘tribal’ society and chiefly rule with despotic and patriarchal qualities were often largely reproduced in official state policy, and served to legitimate white minority rule. Literature on this subject has tended to either be situated within a national narrative, or largely focus on British policies of indirect rule. Tracing the career and thought of F.D. ‘Frits’ Holleman in the first half of the 20th Century, as he moved from judicial and scholarly appointments in the Netherlands East Indies (NEI), to posts at Leiden University in the Netherlands and ultimately Stellenbosch University in South Africa, allows for a more explicitly global approach to the subject. It also demonstrates an insufficiently-acknowledged transfer of Dutch colonial expertise and experience from an established body of Indonesian adat law scholarship, originating at Leiden University, to an emerging field of customary law scholarship in the strongly Afrikaner Nationalist environment of Stellenbosch. While Holleman’s work on South African customary law was in some ways distinct from what he had worked on before, many of the concepts and characteristics he ascribed to African societies were straightforwardly transposed from his work on adat law, which stood within a tradition of scholarship that demonstrated both paternal/empathic concern for protecting non-Western law, and a strong essentialising impulse, leading to broad and enduring generalisations about supposedly ‘primitive’ societies.
Beyond Holleman’s own trajectory, this study holds broader significance in the way it demonstrates the spread of theories of adat law far beyond their place of origin, and their influence on South African thinking about customary law. Moreover, the structural factors which allowed Holleman and his ideas to travel, suggest connections far deeper than a single individual; Holleman’s case has implications for how we think about the ongoing relationship between the Netherlands and South Africa, and indeed a triangular relationship between the Netherlands, Indonesia and South Africa. It may also offer a new lens with which to view the revival of traditionalist politics in both South Africa and Indonesia.