Final Word

Battle over land flood county with John & Jane Doe’s

John Doe.jpg

The thousands of nameless destitute individuals, who become real victims of countless land disputes across the country, especially in urban areas, are creating a legion of John and Jane Doe’s.

The name John (sometimes Jane) Doe has become quite well known as the name/s given to unknown, or anonymous, dead people in state morgues – usually the victims of crime. In fact, television crime series have probably played a big role in establishing this connection.

In fact, it was watching such a programme on television that triggered my curiosity about the origin of the name and why it became a symbol of namelessness.

It turned out that it started some centuries ago as part of the legal process in land disputes in England.

When exactly the name was first used is not sure, but it developed because of legal procedures and rules demanded under the Magna Charta in 1215. Two witnesses were needed before legal action could be taken. To protect the identities of those witnesses, substitute names were often placed on documents.

It most often happened in disputes between landlords and tenants – the plaintiff, protesting eviction, called John Doe and the defendant landlord listed as Richard Roe.

However, sometimes, landowners who wanted to establish their rightful titles, would also use fictitious tenants (John Doe’s) in the ejection action. To find whether this imaginary tenant had a right to be in possession, the court had first to establish that the supposed landlord was actually the owner (Richard Roe), which settled the true reason for the action.

In 1768 a legal expert by the name of Blackstone, commented: "The security here spoken of, … has at present become a mere form: and John Doe and Richard Roe are always returned as the standing pledges for this purpose."

This highly technical procedure was scrapped in 1852 by an act of parliament in Britain. During the 19th century, however, the legal ‘form name’ John Doe has also become a symbol of the ordinary man in the street. For example in the 1825 book The O'Hara Family included “Tales, Containing . . . John Doe."

The general use of the name Richard Roe disappeared, but John Doe, especially in the sense of representing the nameless, stuck around to this day.

The latter was greatly assisted by the fact that the original name/term, and its legal use, migrated to the United States where it survives to this day, being used by US authorities for people who cannot be identified. US courts also allow the names (John and Jane Doe) to be used by people who for legitimate reasons do not want to provide their real names, like in a famous abortion-rights case, Roe v Wade in 1973.

Final word

In the present-day South Africa, battling to come to grips with rapid urbanisation and chronic poverty, we are back with the original nameless landless victims being evicted – the John Doe’s.

In this case, however, Richard Roe is mostly known – mostly government institutions like local authorities that fail to adequately deal with the challenges that comes with rapid urbanisation.

And, in this case the family John Doe is all but dead. In fact we often see them rise in violent protest, protest that might just become the John Doe-revolution.

by Piet Coetzer

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