DGRU's Christopher Oxtoby on Exchange at Sodertons
21 September 2014
Between 1-21 September 2014, Chris Oxtoby, a researcher based in the Democratic Governance & Rights Unit (Faculty of Law), participated in an academic exchange at Soderton University in Stockholm, Sweden. This was part of an ongoing exchange program between the two Universities.
During the course of the exchange, he taught six classes, three to an undergraduate class on comparative public law, and three to a masters level class on European Studies. For the comparative public law class, he gave two lectures and one seminar on the principle of separation of powers, particularly in the South African context, including significant background on the South African constitution and legal system. For the seminar, he asked the students to discuss how they would draft a constitution from scratch â€“ considering issues such as the rights it would contain, and the powers they would give to the courts.
For the masters class, he gave one lecture on a case study of the application of the right of access to information in a South African Court case (between Mail and Guardian and the Department of Public Works) in which DGRU had acted as amicus curiae. DGRU's submissions had drawn heavily on international material, including cases involving Sweden, and the students seemed to enjoy the opportunity to link the issues to events from their own country. He also taught one class and one seminar on the role of the judiciary in facilitating good governance (with some overlap to the separation of powers issues discussed with the other class). Chris also presented a seminar to members of the faculty at Soderton, where he discussed a book chapter he had co-written with Cathy Powell on anti-terrorism law in South Africa and eastern Africa.
Reflecting on the exchange opportunity, he highlighted that he found it to be enormously valuable. It was beneficial for him to gain additional teaching experience, and to do so in a foreign environment was particularly interesting. The insights of Swedish students and academic staff at Soderton gave him a fresh and different perspective on several issues. In the context of his research on the separation of powers, it was fascinating for him to learn about the functioning of the Swedish legislative process, and the extensive input and testing for constitutionality that appears to take place before legislation is passed. It was also interesting for him, especially in light of current controversies about the role and powers of the South African public protector, to learn something about Sweden's extensive ombud institution.
During the Constitution drafting exercise, he highlighted his fascination in seeing how the students contextualised and justified the choices they made. He had placed a lot of emphasis on the particular history of South Africa's Constitution, and the role of socio-economic rights, in his teaching, and he found it very interesting to see how students engaged with this issue. Swedish students brought a different perspective and were very quick to apply the rationale for having socio-economic rights in a constitution to the particular social, political and economic circumstances in Sweden.
He emphasized that the experience of teaching, in particular teaching to students from a different legal system, different academic background and in their second language, was both challenging and enormously beneficial. He felt that it helped him to focus his thinking about how to present material in a clear, understandable way, and to break down complex ideas to their key components. He indicated how he has become used to assuming that people listening to him talk about certain ideas know what he means and it was very valuable for him to go back to basics and explain, for example, why the doctrine of the separation of powers exists, and what its core content is.
In conclusion he highlighted his gratitude for having had the opportunity to participate in the exchange, and has no doubt that it will continue to benefit him in the future.