The first official law lecture of the South African College (as the University of Cape Town was first known) was delivered on 16th April 1859. What began 160 years ago with a part-time professor and a few students in a fortnightly Saturday class is now the top Law school on the African continent, conferring hundreds of undergraduate and postgraduate law degrees every year.
Various locations in Cape Town’s city centre served as classroom venues for these early Law lectures, including the Legislative Council Chamber at the bottom of the Avenue through the Company’s Garden. Despite this energetic start, the Law School struggled to establish itself and after one or two successive professorial appointments, the Law education endeavour was without academic leadership for more than two decades in the late 1800s.
Since then, the UCT Law School has found its home in the Egyptian Building on UCT’s Hiddingh Campus in the city, in the PD Hahn building on UCT’s Rondebosch campus, and in one other building before settling in its current home on UCT’s Middle Campus in Rondebosch.
UCT Law’s 160th year has been heralded in with the appointment of a new Dean of Law, Professor Danwood Chirwa. Prof Chirwa’s mission is to create a vibrant academic atmosphere that encourages collaboration both internally and externally. Chirwa seeks, with the help of his Faculty team and students, to build an institutional culture that engages the whole Faculty community in creating an atmosphere that is inclusive and collaborative, and that encourages debate – where collegiality takes precedence over individuality.
Says Prof Chirwa, “We stand proud of the Law School’s 160-year history – and recognise that our 160th year is also the year in which South Africa’s Constitutional Democracy turns 25 - on 27th April 2019. We take pause to consider the important role that UCT Law has played in shaping the history of South African legal education and the practice of law - and, in particular, the contribution of our academics and graduates to shaping our current legislative framework and to continuously striving to give effect to the rights enshrined in our Constitution.” Prof Chirwa recognises his role in continuing to grow a Faculty – for the next 160 years.
As the Faculty turns 160, we recognise the rich legacy of UCT Law’s academic staff and our alumni. Mentioning notable alumni always runs the risk of overlooking so many. A starter list, however, might include such names – to name a very few – as Justice Albie Sachs (Class of 1956, Rivonia Trialist and Constitutional Court Judge), Justice Dullah Omar (Class of 1957, and first Minister of Justice in a democratic South Africa), Advocate Zainunnisa “Cissie” Gool (Class of 1962, civil rights activist and first black female law graduate and first to be called to the Cape Bar), Judge Dennis Davis (Class of 1976, Head of the Davis Tax Commission), Kate O’Regan (Class of 1980, Constitutional Court Judge, now Director of the Bonavero Centre for Human Rights at Oxford), Judge Vincent Saldanha (Class of 1982, Judge at the Western Cape High Court), Ezra Davids (Class of 1992, and recognised as one of the Top 10 Mergers & Acquisitions lawyers globally).