Dr Joel Modiri presented aspects of his award-winning research paper at Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies in New York in November, and will talk about his research again at UCLA Law School in February 2019.
A lecturer at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Jurisprudence, Dr Modiri won the JUTA prize for the best legal education paper at the Society of Law Teachers of Southern Africa Conference in mid-July in Cape Town. The paper works at the intersection of a sociology of legal knowledge, and Black radical political thought and critical race theory. His talk at Columbia University was titled ‘Race, Conquest and the Whiteness of the South African Academy: Experiments in "Azanian" Critique’.
“The main concern of my research is to develop an approach to jurisprudence that takes seriously the gap, or tension, between the constitutional promise of equality, freedom and non-racialism and the ongoing reality of racial oppression, inequality and social conflict,” says Dr Modiri.
“The paper aims to offer a general theoretical consideration of transforming legal education and legal scholarship through deploying the social reality of race – and by extension, class and gender – and South Africa’s history of colonial conquest as central categories of analysis,” he explains. “However, my research found that the current demographic make-up of the legal academy, in particular the underrepresentation of black voices, does not enable openness to alternative non-Eurocentric traditions of legal and political analysis. In other words, the demographic narrowness of the legal academy also produces a conceptual narrowness in how law is theorised, taught and practised.”
Drawing on his work on Black Consciousness in the post-1994 context, he suggests taking African and African diasporic intellectual traditions as a starting point and developing new themes (such as liberation, epistemology, the psycho-social, historiography) to be explored in legal theory, drawing on the Azanian/Africanist political tradition, principally represented by Anton Lembede, Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko.
“This is not an exhaustive project,” Dr Modiri says. “The aim is not to replace or supplant existing theories, but to critically interrogate the manner in which legal knowledge is enacted and reproduced in South Africa. The research is ongoing, and aims to contribute to discourse and debate on curriculum transformation in legal studies as well as decolonisation of knowledge more broadly.
“It also builds on my previous research on constructing a critical legal pedagogy that places history, power, justice, critical thinking and social context at the heart of legal education.”
This research is central to Dr Modiri’s teaching, and he believes that students are responding positively to these new approaches in legal scholarship. Between 2016 and 2018, he’s been the recipient of the annual Lecturer of the Year Award which is based on student votes. “The JUTA prize,” he says, “is a rewarding affirmation that research being conducted in the Faculty of Law and the UP Department of Jurisprudence in particular is making a significant impact in the community of law teachers in Southern Africa.”