Alumni Short
Innovative Course Sends Students to South Africa to Study Comparative Law Ithaca, NEW YORK, March 3, 2015

Interest is growing in a first-of-its-kind class at Cornell Law School. For the second year in a row, students enrolled in Law and Social Change: Comparative Law in Africa spent three weeks in South Africa during winter break to experience first hand the interplay of law and society. This year, enrollment in the course—the only Law School class to include a field trip component—increased to sixteen from ten a year ago.

The semester-long course is co-taught by Muna Ndulo, professor of law and director of the Institute for African Development, and Cynthia Grant Bowman, the Dorothea S. Clarke Professor of Law. The South Africa component of the course provides an opportunity for multicultural experiences in South African society, culture and institutions.

“Students understand their own legal systems better when they are exposed to other systems,” says Ndulo. For many students, he says, the real-world experiences of the trip are eye opening and even “life changing.”

For one of those students, Aysha J. Valery ’16, the trip was a “dream come true” and “a truly holistic experience of immersing myself in South African culture.” Valery, who hopes to one day use her law degree to work in Africa, was struck by “how much the South African people strove to promote remembrance of their troubled history” through powerful symbolism.

Gallery Image

South Africa 3 South Africa 2 South Africa 4 South Africa 1 South Africa 6 South Africa 5


Law and Social Change: Comparative Law in Africa 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 examines how the two systems interacted and clashed in the courts, and also looks at issues like gender discrimination and land reform.

While in South Africa, the students received instruction from University of Johannesburg faculty. Professor George Mpedi lectured on South African labor law and practices. Professor Mispa Roux taught about social economic rights that are protected in the South African Constitution. Professor Ignatius Rautenbach covered South African constitutional law as interpreted by the South African Constitutional Court. In his lecture he drew on comparative jurisprudence from the United States. Professor Ernest Marias lectured on Ubuntu and land restitution.  South Africa is implementing a land restitution program designed to give back land to communities whose land was seized by the government during the apartheid era. Professor Sipho Nkosi discussed African customary law.

An especially powerful part of the trip was a day-long visit to Soweto, the oldest and largest black township in South Africa.  Students “discovered a vibrant society,” says Ndulo, as they met members of the community and discussed challenges and issues they were facing.

While in Soweto the students visited the Hector Petersen Museum, which chronicles the Soweto uprising of 1976. They also visited the Southern African Litigation Center, a public interest organization that takes up high-impact cases involving human rights.

Their docket has included bringing the Zimbabwe government before the courts of South Africa on allegations of torture. Recently, the center sued the governments of South Africa and Namibia to end a secret government policy of sterilizing HIV women.

The students also visited the South African Constitution Court and learned about its work. “The court is housed at a former prison, which at one time held Ghandi and Mandela,” says Ndulo, “thereby bringing the past and the new South Africa together in a court whose function is to safeguard South Africa’s constitutional order.”

“Visiting the prison had such an emotional impact on me because it was hard to stand in places where people had suffered such anguish,” says Valery, “but the hope displayed though the powerful symbolism at the Constitutional Court provided a stark contrast.”

The students also visited Gender Links, a leading woman’s advocacy group in Southern Africa.  They also went to Lief Farm, which had been the secret hide out for the African National Congress’ Military Wing. A police raid on this farm provided the police with much of the evidence they used to convict Nelson Mandela in the 1962 Treason Trial.

At the Cradle of Mankind, a UESCO Heritage site, the students visited underground caves and learned about how humankind was born and viewed stone tools up to a million years old.  On the last three days of trip the students went to Mogalakwena Game Park near the Botswana/South Africa boarder. On the last day of that visit, the students engaged in community work at a rural community school.

The students also experienced Lesedi Village, where they learned about the history and origins of South Africa’s many different cultures. After visiting the five homesteads—Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Basotho, and Ndebele—they took part in traditional singing and dancing with members of the village.

In the last week of the program, the class was joined by Jackie Sayegh from the Institute for African Development and the EINAUDI Center for International Studies. The Institute made partial grants to students to support travel costs.