Rhodes University: Law Faculty celebrates success of staff and students during turbulent 2020 academic year

The Rhodes University Law Faculty recently kicked off its 2021 academic year by celebrating the success of academic staff and students alike. In a virtual event that was like no other faculty opening; students, staff and some alumni joined in via the comfort of their homes – a sign of the times we live in, where almost all academic activities are facilitated via digital platforms.

For the opening ceremony, the Faculty invited back one of its brightest alumni, Sinal Govender, to speak to students and staff members about her journey in the legal profession. Govender was recently named as one of Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans in the law and justice field. The coveted list celebrates excellent young South Africans’ positive contributions to South African society.

Govender graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Legal Theory and Linguistics and went on to complete her LLB at the Rhodes University Law Faculty in 2011. Her subsequent career followed a traditional trajectory for legal professionals, where she signed articles with a legal firm and then worked her way up to Senior Associate.

Initially, Govender never intended to study Law coming into Rhodes University, but instead had aspirations of studying at the famous Rhodes University School of Journalism and Media Studies. According to her, this was rooted in a desire to contribute to changing people’s lives.

“It was my father, a doctor during apartheid, who gently pushed me towards a career in Law because he knew the difficulty of making it in the world,” said Govender.

Using the opportunity to speak with students to reflect on her career, Govender spoke of the challenging competitiveness that comes with working in the legal profession. She spoke out about the difficulties experienced by many young lawyers.

“I ended up experiencing burn out; something that many lawyers have gone through, unfortunately,” said Govender.

After her burnout, she decided to take a break from legal practice and explore her entrepreneurial side. She said that while on her “break”, she decided to register a company as a move to secure job opportunities for when she returns to formal legal practice.

Registering her own company in 2017 was the springboard she needed to follow her dream of changing people’s lives. Shortly after registering her company, she received many client referrals from industry colleagues, of people who could not afford the legal costs offered by law firms.

“I wanted to offer legal services to people who otherwise may not have access to lawyers. I realised how much of a privilege it is to have studied the law and to know about something that affects every single person and all the time,” said Govender.

At the beginning of the pandemic, exactly on the first day of South Africa’s hard lockdown, Govender and her fellow Rhodes University alumni, Claire Keet Pollock, co-founded a digital law firm called Pop Law. Through Pop Law, the Rhodes University graduates use their strengths and industry knowledge in design and law to make “law for everyone”. A strategy that helped them secure their position in the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South African’s list.

Through Pop Law, Govender and Keet have already begun contributing to developing the next generation of legal professionals in the digital space. They have taken Nomsa Maswera, an undergraduate student at the Rhodes University law faculty as a legal intern. They said despite her youth, Maswera already has an acute awareness of how the law and society intersect.

The opening ceremony also served as an opportunity to celebrate the successes of students and staff during the 2020 academic year. Despite the many disruptions that confronted them, some students and staff performed well, despite working through a pandemic that has claimed the lives of many South Africans.

Associate Professor Helena Van Coller presented the Rhodes University Law Faculty Researcher of the Year Award to Professor Graham Glover for excellence he has shown through his research work in a year that has tested many academics and limited their time spent to research.

Acting Dean at the Faculty, Professor Laurence Juma, took time during the event to acknowledge some 2020 Faculty highlights, including a discussion between some of the brightest LLB students and retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, which was organised by former Dean, Professor Kruger. The discussion formed part of the retired judge’s nationwide campus tour during the launch of his legal memoir All Rise.

Final year student, Vuyani Ndzishe, who was one of the discussants said that the opportunity to pick the Deputy Chief Justice’s brain has been a highlight in his studies at Rhodes University.

“Oftentimes law students only experience judges through the judgements they have to study as part of their law studies… so for me to have participated in a discussion with other students and a judge was a life-changing opportunity as a student of law,” he said.

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