PROF. NICOLA SMIT
The next female legal academic we will be featuring in our 100More series honouring female academics who have made a significant contribution to legal academia, and beyond is Professor Nicola Smit.
Briefly describe your journey to becoming a law teacher.
There is a saying that ‘no-one has teeth at birth’, and the journey to becoming a law teacher takes time for anyone interested in this goal. My journey started at the University of Pretoria where I completed my BLC (cum laude) and LLB (cum laude). It was reinforced during this time with my exposure to academia from a different viewpoint than that of a student, namely as academic assistant at UNISA (in the Private Law department). The direction that I was following was cemented with an appointment as lecturer at the University of Johannesburg (then RAU). I also completed my LLD (The Labour Law Implications of the Transfer of an Undertaking (2002)) at UJ. What is perhaps interesting about my journey is that it was a relatively direct, rather than scenic, route as I decided early on that my end destination would be becoming a law teacher and researcher. After all, you need to know where you are going to set your sails to the wind.
I was fortunate that I had knowledgeable and energetic mentors on my journey. It would be a missed opportunity if I did not mention here that although many faculties of law now have women comprising at least half of their academic staff, this was not the case 20 years ago and I was lucky to also have good female role models. There were ample opportunities to become involved in research projects, social impact work and teaching at different levels (including extra-curricular training, undergraduate and postgraduate programmes). Moreover, I had the privilege of specialising in the area that I loved right from the start of my career, namely labour law and social protection law. The combination of all these circumstances resulted in my early career choice never changing.
Describe a highlight and your most significant contribution to legal academia.
I believe that one should celebrate small milestones. There have been many of these, the completion of my doctorate, my inaugural lecture when I became full professor, the publication of my first article/book, the first invitation as international key note speaker, the first editorial board membership, my first doctoral graduate, the first citation of my work by a court, building and maintaining networks, having been the first women dean at my previous faculty, and the first (non-alumna) dean of my current faculty.
My peers would be best placed to consider my most significant contribution to legal academia. Personally, I am especially proud of our efforts to introduce and establish Social Security Law to South African academics from 1997 onwards, publishing the first South African texts in this field and promoting the inclusion of social security law in the syllabus of South African Universities. Coupled with this our longstanding labour law research focus on those working in the informal economy have attempted to highlight the decent work deficits affecting the lives of countless marginalised and vulnerable people in the region and South Africa. Secondly, I have thus far devoted more than 11 years to deanship because of my belief in the importance of what we do and the need to develop and support both emerging and established academics and strengthening legal education. It hasn’t been an effortless journey, but I am grateful for the opportunity that I have had to make this contribution to legal academia.
Do you have some inspiring words for emerging law teachers?
The sun rises every day.
Daily routines are important – work hard and in a focussed manner, listen to those around you, communicate clearly and honestly and make your voice heard, be part of a collective even though your work may be highly individual, be open for different experiences, support the women in law, pursue excellence but always be kind and compassionate in dealing with others.
Finally, another important consequence of the sun rising every day is that there will be another day tomorrow; be the best law teacher that you can be but also maintain a healthy balance in your life and don’t be too hard on yourself should you at any point feel that you are not achieving all your goals.