Students Examine Customary Law Up Close in South Africa Trip
For Law School students enrolled in LAW 6655: Customary Law and Social Change in Africa this past fall term, comparative law meant comparing up close, not just in the classroom. For three weeks, the 10 students taking the class traveled to South Africa with Muna B. Ndulo, professor of law and director of the Institute for African Development; it was the first time a Law School class had included a field trip component.
“You understand your own system better when you get exposed to other systems,” said Ndulo. “The students, I think that was a game-changer for them in terms of their perception of life and law.”
One of those students, Ebony Ray 2L, wholeheartedly agreed. “My experience in South Africa has changed my life,” she said. “The history was fascinating, infuriating, and encouraging all at the same time. It was incredibly eye-opening to learn so much about South Africa’s history and legal system while visiting and touring the very places where its history unfolded.”
Customary Law and Social Change in Africa focused on the plural law systems that are widespread throughout Africa, where customary law derived from indigenous practices coexisted with British Common Law and other legal systems that had been imported by European colonizers. The course examined how the two systems interacted and clashed in the courts, and also looked at issues like gender discrimination and land reform.
For the first part of the term, Ndulo taught the course in Ithaca with Cynthia Grant Bowman, the Dorothea S. Clarke Professor of Law. However, while Bowman was supposed to travel to South Africa with the rest of the class, she was unable to go because of illness. In South Africa, the class was held at the University of Johannesburg, with the Cornell students taught in the mornings by Professors Elmien du Plessis and George Mphedi. Classes were only part of the trip though. “They were also immersed in society,” said Ndulo.
“They spent a whole day in Soweto, meeting the community there and discussing what the challenges are and the issues that they face,” Ndulo said. “And then they spent a whole day at the Constitutional Court, which is the highest court in South Africa, learning its jurisprudence and how the court functions. And then they got immersed in a village to see the different cultures in South Africa, what they are about and that sort of thing.” Students also visited the Southern African Litigation Centre, a legal group that does high-profile human rights work throughout the region, and the leading South African woman’s organization Gender Links, as well as Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum and the Mogalakwena Game Reserve near South Africa’s border with Botswana.
The 2Ls and 3Ls that went to South Africa specialized in a variety of different fields, but Ndulo sees value in the class for all lawyers in training. “Increasingly, in the world there’s really so much interaction,” he says. “If you look at the challenges of the environment, you know, the environment impacts everywhere. You’re not immune to what China’s doing or South Africa’s doing. And in order to really address environmental issues you have to understand what the challenges are elsewhere. So I think that it’s something that increasingly is going to be very important for everybody.”
Ray says that her experiences in South Africa have had a lasting impact on her outlook on the world, and her future in legal field. “I now see the world as a global citizen, not just as an American. I now have a better understanding of the challenges of an increasingly interconnected world and am interested in working to meet these challenges,” she said. “In fact, when selecting a practice group for my law firm summer program, I chose Project Development and Finance, which advises on infrastructure projects all over the world. I am particularly interested in the ways lawyers manage political and financial risks while balancing client needs with sustainability and the long-term goals of developing nations.”
The Customary Law and Social Change in Africa was so successful that it has gone back onto the calendar for this coming fall. Ndulo says he has seen a lot of interest in the class both from within the Law School, and from the rest of Cornell University. For the upcoming class, he said, students from the wider university will be able to register, but only if there are not enough Law students to fill the course.