The pursuit of a law degree at the University of Cape Town (UCT), depending on one’s academic stream, usually takes about three or four years. Mine played hard to get so it took me five years. Still, on 16 December, 2013, after an educational, emotional, and challenging sojourn in the Kramer Law Faculty I finally ascended the podium in Jameson Hall (after my name was butchered by the Dean) in my billowing black robes which, disappointingly, did not make me feel like Severus Snape and handed my sash to the Registrar. I knelt before the Acting Vice-Chancellor of UCT, Professor Crain Soudien, to be capped. He gave me a firm handshake, congratulated me, and lightly tapped my head with the ceremonial graduation cap. The Registrar then put my sash around my shoulders and I descended from the stage. The whole graduation ceremony was about three hours long; I occupied about ten seconds of the proceedings.
That was it. Ten seconds. Forgive me if I am wrong, but in any other sphere of life, ten seconds is the kind of lap time that usually prompts awkward promises to do better the next time.
“Seriously, this usually does not happen…I swear!” That kind of thing.
Not UCT, though, it rolled over and carried on like nothing had happened. The conveyor belt of graduands clunked, thunked, rattled, and wheezed. One mispronounced name later another graduand climbed the podium. Within 20 seconds two graduates had been produced. Even though I knew that my moment on the podium would be fleeting I still expected the universe to stop and applaud my determined mediocrity. I was graduating from UCT again, goddammit! Why was the world still spinning?
But spin the world did and hastily move on it did, too. The last five years, a catalogue of late nights, frantic essay research, anxious examinations, and desperate attempts to stay awake in lectures, were suddenly over. I was a graduate. No more desperate Hail Marys when summarising voluminous cases; no more droll lectures; no more scrounging for black market notes. No more. It was all finally over.
That was in December. It is January now, and for good (I hope) or ill, I have been unleashed on an unsuspecting world. New career trajectory, new challenges, and new ideas. The victorious finally returns.
And what of law? What of this thing I spent the longest time pursuing?
My reasons for studying law are amorphous even to me. I remember when I enrolled I was motivated by the three primary reasons many people take the tortuous legal road: the prestige; the stable and lucrative career path; and a fair dose of family pressure. Deep beneath my academic fatigue I am sure my motivations are still there but over the years they have morphed along the way. Early on I knew I did not want to practice law; I was never attracted by the prospect of working at a big corporate law firm or fighting the good fight with a financially embattled advocacy office pushing for human rights. Instead, I was interested in the grand design of law; I was attracted by its ubiquitous coercive nature; I was drawn to the transmission of legal cultures and the way ordinary people live within and outside the law. As a writer of stories, I gravitated towards the grand themes of justice, equality, and dignity in South Africa, Africa, and the world as a whole.
Sure, a couple of fields did pique my interest—company law, African customary law, jurisprudence, and criminal law to name a few—but I never considered any of them to be viable career options after graduation. I enjoyed the legal controversies that were poorly covered by mainstream media; I loved the constant interactions of social, political, and economic occurences which resulted in legal reforms, and the obscure, foreign, and forgotten foundations of legal systems which continue to shape the course of everyday human life.
I sat in shock while I read some landmark criminal law judgments and I laughed my way through some sordid divorces (“If you ain’t no chump holler ‘we want prenupts!’”). In African customary law I could see the scars of South Africa’s past and its current problems laid bare; in European Union law I read about models of power that have changed the world forever. I learned all about human rights in constitutional law, and I forgot about them in the law of contract. I read about local problems and international solutions. I was bombarded by the jurisprudential musings of dead philosophers; I saw how political compromises have shaped South Africa’s legal and social order; I learned about writers, reporters, and defamation lawsuits. I learned about poverty and wealth and how the two are shaped and maintained by misguided legal judgments; I also saw the good that the law can achieve when it has a mind to. Most importantly, I recognised the difference between access to the law and enjoyment of the law. (Masters research topic, anyone?)
I learned how to use insofar, notwithstanding, and other boring legalese.
Echoing Lord Steyn’s famous quote in Regina v. Secretary of State For The Home Department, Ex Parte Daly that “in law, context is everything” I found myself paying more attention to the world’s petty annoyances and controversial debates; the language used in legal judgments; and the shifting social framework in which the law operates. Most of all, I saw how ordinary people interacted with the law from the moment they woke up to the moment they slept. I learned about context, the fluffy, hazy, hard, dirty, and confusing thing that shapes the law.
And if context is everything in law, then it is to that context I am headed now with my pen and camera. There are so many stories of a legal and non-legal nature that are calling my name; so many contexts to immerse myself between now and eternity. I do not know what I will find but I hope it will be worth writing about.
Oh, dear, it is 2014 already. Hello, good morning, and goodbye. I really must get going. My next ten seconds of fame are beckoning already.