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Our journey towards realising the dream imagined in 1994 is far from over

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Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

As we celebrate Freedom Day and commemorate this significant milestone, we must also actively and continually recommit ourselves to the ideals of our democracy.

Reflecting on 30 years of democracy this week, I pondered the significance of the convergence between education and the law – particularly in a young democracy such as ours.

At the helm of one of the largest public universities in South Africa, I am acutely aware of the legal challenges that higher education institutes grapple with. There are funding and access challenges that mar the sector. There are transformation challenges as we aim to right the imbalances of our past. There are challenges that crop up around intellectual property and research ethics.

Then, there are challenges surrounding privacy and security, particularly as institutions increasingly embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and its technologies. This, of course, merely scratches the surface. There are some key considerations for those at the intersection of these industries.

First, universities face myriad legal obligations, ranging from employment laws to regulatory compliance in research and student affairs. Legal advisers must converge to share best practices, identify emerging compliance issues, and develop strategies to mitigate legal risks, safeguarding the interests of their respective institutions.

Second, upholding the integrity and accountability of public universities is paramount in maintaining public trust. In response, we must facilitate discussions on ethical considerations, governance structures and legal standards, fostering a culture of transparency and accountability within higher education institutions.

Third, the legal landscape is ever-evolving, with new precedents, legislation and judicial interpretations constantly shaping the terrain. Discussions thus serve as a breeding ground for legal scholarship and innovation, fostering debate, analysis and exploration of emerging legal trends and issues within the higher education sector.

Fourth, a grim reality is that legal advisers within public universities often operate in isolation, grappling with unique legal challenges within their respective institutions. A collaborative approach enhances collective knowledge and strengthens the capacity of legal teams across the sector.

Finally, in an era marked by rapid change and uncertainty, such as the 4IR, institutions must also be agile and resilient in their response to legal challenges. We must thus anticipate and adapt to evolving legal landscapes, ensuring that universities remain proactive and responsive in safeguarding their interests and fulfilling their missions.

We are responsible for fostering a more just and equitable world through higher education and the law.

This represents understanding the intersection of the law and higher education through the lens of societal impact. This reflects our broader mission to advance knowledge, educate future generations and catalyse positive global change.

This human-centric approach to our changing world and the advancement of technology is a wonderful example of the African concept of ubuntu in progress. This idea represents the value of unity, collaboration, generosity and mutual support, which are integral to achieving our overarching developmental goals.

There is a distinct interconnectedness between the legal landscape and the pursuit of social justice in South Africa, particularly within the higher education sector. As we celebrate Freedom Day this week, this is abundantly evident.

In the university landscape, legal education plays a pivotal role in shaping future legal practitioners who are proficient in the law and equipped with a deep understanding of the social, economic and political dynamics at play in South Africa. This includes an appreciation of the historical context of legal inequalities and a commitment to using the law as a tool for positive social change.

Of course, questions may arise about whether legal curriculums adequately address social justice issues, whether legal pedagogy encourages critical thinking and engagement with social justice concerns, and whether legal practitioners are sufficiently prepared to navigate the complexities of social justice advocacy within the legal profession.

We are also responsible for fostering a more just and equitable world through higher education and the law.

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In our short history as a democratic nation, South Africans have collectively recognised the importance of building bridges, upholding constitutional values and addressing issues that undermine the human rights of others.

It is important, however, to recognise that these freedoms are not guaranteed and must also be continually safeguarded through active citizenship and engagement with the democratic process.

Although we have seen immense progress over the past 30 years, our journey towards realising the dream imagined in 1994 is far from over. There are demonstrably still challenges and hurdles we face – even beyond these sectors.

Thus, as we commemorate this significant milestone, we must also actively and continually recommit ourselves to the ideals of our democracy.

As former US president Barack Obama wrote in his autobiography, “the study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality; a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power – and that all too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition. But that’s not all the law is. The law is also memory; the law also records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience.”

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We need to embody this broader understanding of the law – it is a recognition that our work extends beyond the confines of statutes and regulations to encompass a commitment to justice, equity and social progress.

Indeed, at the intersection of education and the law, leaders must navigate these multifaceted challenges with a commitment to advancing the principles of democracy and all that it entails. DM

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