PROF. WILLEMIEN DU PLESSIS
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 Willemien Du Plessis.
We would like to take this opportunity to wish Prof. Du Plessis everything of the best on her upcoming retirement and thank her for her invaluable contribution to legal academia in South Africa.
Briefly describe your journey to becoming a law teacher.
I began my career as a clerk of the Magistrates’ Court. As my parents did not have money to pay for my studies, I applied for a bursary from the Department of Justice. This bursary entailed that I became an employee of the Department, allowing me to pursue my B Juris degree at the then Potchefstroom University. Whenever my exams ended, that was the moment I had to return to the Johannesburg Magistrates’ Office to work as a clerk of the court during the holidays. My application to do fulltime LLB studies was refused. I was upgraded from clerk of the court to a prosecutor. I was later transferred to the regional courts. I realised studying part-time through Unisa is going to take a lifetime. I applied for unpaid leave to complete my LLB studies at Potchefstroom University, still returning during the holidays to work at Johannesburg Magistrates’ Office. During my LLB studies some of the professors approached me and asked whether I would not like to continue with a doctorate. I asked my senior public prosecutor again for leave, which he refused but offered to take me back once the doctorate was completed. I resigned and relied on locum tenens positions to fund my research. The Roman law professor retired and I was asked to apply. I thought it hilarious and did so, making jokes throughout the interview. I did not think I would get the position. Well I did, and the rest is history. I completed my doctorate in more or less two years under the late Prof Lourens du Plessis on the “right of access to information and the public interest” and published 10 articles in the subsequent year (never again though). I taught Roman law, Legal history, African customary law, Land law and developed modules in Environmental law and Religious legal systems at the NWU. At one time I taught all of these modules at once. I had to do twice as much as my male colleagues to get promoted. At the time women also had to fight for access to housing subsidy, group insurance, etc. I was very thankful for the 1994 and 1996 Constitutions that brought about equality for all.
Describe a highlight and your most significant contribution to legal academia.
The highlight of my career is when my undergraduate and postgraduate students finally graduate each year. My legacy is my postgraduate students. They include professors at national and international universities, legal practitioners as well as government officials. I am very proud of each of their contributions. I have learnt so much from them.
Do you have some inspiring words for emerging law teachers?
Grab all the opportunities that come your way. Only you can become the academic you want to be, nobody is going to do it for you. Obtain your qualifications as soon as possible, as Judge Avinash Govindjee says: your doctorate is your green card into academia. Make sure you become an expert in the field that you teach so that your students can benefit. Make sure your knowledge is up to date. It may be that you do not always teach in the area of your research interest, but one day you may see the link between your research interest and what you teach. You can only be as good a teacher, as you are a researcher. Being an academic is not an eight to five job, it is never-ending and is a lifelong learning experience.