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Students Study Law and Social Change in South Africa

This past winter break, sixteen students enrolled in Professor Muna Ndulo’s “Law and Social Change: Comparative Law in Africa” travelled to Johannesburg, South Africa, for the experiential portion of the course. During the three-week trip, students collaborated with faculty and students at the University of Johannesburg to examine, analyze, and explore firsthand the interplay of law and society.

According to Ndulo, the course’s combination of academic classroom learning and field experience provides an innovative approach to learning about the law, societies, cultures, and the challenges of post-apartheid South Africa. Now in its fifth year, the course focuses on the plural law systems that are widespread throughout Africa, where customary law derived from indigenous practices that coexisted with British Common Law and other legal systems that had been imported by European colonizers. The course continues to attract Cornell students interested in learning how the law (specifically in South Africa) can be harnessed to bring about social, economic, and political change.

“A course like this one challenges students to adapt, a quality that is essential in the current global environment,” says Ndulo, the Elizabeth and Arthur Reich Director, Leo and Arvilla Berger International Legal Studies Program; Director of the Institute for African Development. It also gives them the opportunity to navigate different cultures, acquire intercultural understanding, and foster relationships that broadens their social and professional circles.”

During the first week, students took intensive law courses at the University of Johannesburg, which were led by the Dean of the Faculty of Law, Letlhokwa Mpedi. Professors Mispa Roux, Roxana Venter, Ernst Marais, and Sipho Nkosi taught portions of the courses as well. During the second and third weeks, students immersed themselves in South African society and engaged with individuals and organizations in Johannesburg directly involved in the administration of law.

Students also traveled to Soweto to visit the home of the late president Nelson Mandela, Klip Town Square, where South Africans of all races gathered in 1954 to adopt the Freedom Charter (the foundational document of the 1996 South Africa Constitution), and Constitution Hill, seat of South Africa’s Constitutional Court since 2004. The course also featured visits to and discussions with staff of the Southern African Litigation Center, as well as networking opportunities with practicing lawyers from the Johannesburg bar.

The course was created with funds from the Internationalizing the Cornell Curriculum grant out of the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs.

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