Don's diary: law in another land

July 12, 2002


Cape Town is only a night's sleep away. We are beginning a new globalised life - spending January to June at the University of Cape Town and July to December at Queen Mary, University of London. A fondness for packing is an essential requirement.

In the space of one breathless week we acquire the basic infrastructure of life - a mobile phone, a car and a house. Spend the next three months unravelling the consequential sticky red tape.


The office window overlooks Table Mountain. The university nestles on the lush lower slopes, in grounds bequeathed by Cecil Rhodes - one of his more enlightened decisions.

I am teaching international and comparative constitutional law and international children's rights. The law faculty is in its own building and would be the envy of many British universities - modern lecture halls are fully fitted with the latest electronic gadgetry, and there is a specially designed mock court room.

Twenty of us in the law faculty begin xhosa lessons, ( xhosa is the language made famous by Miriam Makeba's click song). South Africa has 11 official languages. Xhosa has a cynical approach to lawyers - it uses the same word for "one who twists the truth".


Postgraduate classes are smaller than in the UK and the students are very sharp. One sobering difference is that HIV/Aids affects every aspect of university life, from the content of university curricula to students' social lives.

The South African government is refusing to provide HIV-positive pregnant women with a cheap drug, neviraprine, that prevents mother-to-child transmission. The government's refusal is being challenged in the constitutional court. I ask my students if they wish to contribute to one of the amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs and we spend a month researching and discussing it. Impressed with their total dedication.

We are able to spend time on this research because contributing to the process of transformation is specifically written into the contracts of academics in South Africa. This engenders a spirit of generosity looking beyond the university and is something UK universities ought to consider. The willingness among all faculties to contribute to national debates and policy formulations has had a positive effect on the high respect with which society holds academics in South Africa.


The University of Cape Town attracts a large number of visitors. In a few weeks there are visits from the law faculties of Belfast, Birbeck, Botswana, Essex, Melbourne, Florida and Washington universities.

After a steep learning curve about South African property law, we finally move into our new home - a fisherman's cottage in Kalk Bay, Cape Town. Kalk Bay is framed by a World Bank-protected mountain behind and the deep, blue waters of the Indian Ocean in front. The village is home to the oldest fishing community in South Africa, which successfully resisted being moved out under the brutal apartheid Group Areas Act. It is also home to many artists, antique shops and wonderful restaurants. In other words, an African version of Cornwall.

From our balcony we watch South Africa's first "afronaut", Mark Shuttleworth, streak across a star-filled southern sky.


Three-quarters of my constitutional class have been selected to serve as clerks to the constitutional court. This is a record and I take them out for lunch to celebrate. They deserve their success.


Arrive at the British Airways counter, my case bulging with papers (and the occasional pair of shoes). The case that two of us had difficulty lifting has somehow reached 20kg overweight. BA kindly charge me for only 5kg and do not raise an eyebrow at my six pieces of hand luggage.

Geraldine Van Bueren is professor of international human rights law at Queen Mary, University of London and professor, faculty of law, University of Cape Town.

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