After 24 years of service at UCT and nearly 40 years in customary law, advancing the rights of women, children and indigenous communities, Professor Chuma Himonga is the latest recipient of the Alan Pifer Research Award for Socially Responsive Research. It is the celebration of an illustrious career that all began on a farm in Zambia where young Chuma started on a path supported by her determination, discipline and love for her roots.
Discipline, dedication and rural roots
“I am a rural girl,” says Himonga, who grew up on her father’s farm in Monze, where she and her siblings helped care for the cattle and harvested maize, sweet potatoes and groundnuts.
It was hard work from a young age, and Himonga credits her father for laying the foundations for the discipline she applies in many areas of her life today.
“He would say to us, ‘If the sun finds you in bed when it rises, you will be poor.’”
Her father’s words were her guiding light from the farm to boarding school, to the University of Zambia, University of London, University of Bayreuth in Germany and all the way to UCT where Himonga is set to retire at the end of 2017.
“If my father was still alive today, I would tell him that the legacy he left was the work ethic he instilled,” she says.
It was this – along with her love for the system that regulated her life as well as those of her friends and family – that led Himonga to carve out a celebrated academic career in customary law.
Common law and customary law
In rural Africa, customary law regulates the lives of millions – people who live at a “complex and shifting intersection of traditional and state institutions”. Equally, black Africans living in towns often regulate many aspects of their lives using a combination of customary law and other systems of law in a country’s legal system.
Himonga, as a leading scholar on both common law (the law of European origin in African legal systems) and customary law (a community's customs or practices that were never codified but are so common that they are considered legally enforceable), is uniquely placed to speak to overlaps between these systems of law.
Among her many contributions to reconciling traditional regulatory frameworks and common law, Himonga has been part of a group of legal academics who have been influential in seeking ways of defining and ascertaining customary law for purposes of its application and reconciling this system of law with human rights, including constitutional rights in South Africa.
Throughout, Himonga’s work has greatly contributed to advancing the rights of women, children and indigenous communities.
Professor Penelope Andrews, the dean of law, and Professor Dee Smythe, director of research in the Faculty of Law, refer to Himonga’s work as “a remarkable record of engagement with vernacular justice in practice”.
In their nomination submission for the award, Andrews and Smythe laud Himonga and her research, her collaborative efforts, strides made under her leadership as South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARCHi) Research Chair, nurturing of the continent’s leaders, her transformative role within the Faculty of Law, and her teaching.
Her research centres on the law of persons and marriage, African customary law, legal pluralism, and women and children’s rights under customary law in Southern Africa.
“It is a body of work that reflects four strong imperatives,” says Andrews.
These are demonstrating the operation of law in practice; debunking the enduring primacy of common over customary law; working towards creating a complex, responsive and vibrant legal system; and, to illustrate the need and advocate for reform of both systems, better serving the most disadvantaged.
These priorities, says Smythe, are readily apparent in Himonga’s fourth and most recent book, Reform of Customary Marriage, Divorce and Succession in South Africa: Living Customary Law and Social Realities, co-authored with UCT sociologist Elena Moore.
Himonga and Moore look in detail at the impact of interventions into the customary law of marriage and succession.
“Critically, the book also deals with the financial consequences of divorce and the impact on children,” says Smythe.
She adds that Himonga’s writing “spans the terrain of personal law”, the consequences and dissolution of marriage, rights of women living in or entering into polygynous marriages, lobola, land grabbing in the context of inheritance, and the rights of the children.
“Always, there is the pressing question of how to reconcile rights to culture and gender equality, and to give full effect to the constitutional recognition of customary law.”
Leaving a legacy
In committing her life’s work to advancing the rights of Africa’s marginalised, Himonga’s career is marked by collaboration with other academics, across disciplines and with a number of civil society organisations.
She has collaborated with the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences in exploring new perspectives based on African philosophies about the right to health and has worked alongside traditional leaders on the coexistence of indigenous and non-indigenous legal cultures, among others.
“There is a long history of impact in her work,” says Andrews
Along with many other achievements and roles, Himonga co-founded Women and Law in Southern Africa, an activist-research organisation, in 1988. She is the warden of All Africa House, hosting, among others, African scholars from different countries on the continent in addition to convening and coordinating the All Africa House Fellowship Programme for the past six years; and she is the current South African Research Chair in Customary Law, Indigenous Values and Human Rights hosted by UCT, funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and administered by the National Research Foundation (NRF).
“My Chair has been the highlight of my career for the simple reason that it helped me do what I love to do, which is study customary law and the operation of law in practice,” she says.
Andrews describes how in her position as Chair, Himonga has facilitated “a rich and forward-thinking research agenda”, teaching a generation of UCT lawyers the importance of customary law. Under Himonga’s guidance, UCT is one of the few law faculties to offer customary law as a compulsory LLB subject.
As retirement nears, Himonga is looking forward to spending more time with her two children, their spouses and her three grandchildren.
While growing as an academic, she raised her children as a single mother after she was tragically widowed early in her career.
“It was a challenge because no-one thinks of the family situation, of the whole person,” she says of some of the hidden faces of gender in academia.
Fortunately, Himonga says, her children were easy and demonstrated the same kind of independence and discipline her father and mother had instilled in her so many years ago.
“They recognised very early on that they had to fight the battle of life together,” she says.
Now, Himonga is looking forward to receiving the Alan Pifer Award and has already planned her celebrations.
“It will give my children and grandchildren the opportunity to see my work,” she says smiling.
Then, in keeping with the work ethic instilled in her during her formative years on the farm, Himonga will tie up as much of the research at her Chair as possible before retiring.
But do not expect her to slow down. She plans to undertake faith-based community outreach, helping community members living in poverty lead healthier lifestyles, spend more time with her family and keep one foot in academia.
Certainly, even in retirement, the sun will never catch this socially responsive researcher sleeping.