“Use your knowledge, training and skills in the service of humane, just causes,” says Dr Joel Modiri to youth.

Posted on June 24, 2020

At just 28, Dr Joel Modiri is a high-achieving law academic who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Jurisprudence in the Faculty of Law at UP. He tells us about his research interests and the kind of revolutionary change that young people can – and need – to realise.

“Learn about and involve yourself in the struggles of marginalised groups and communities; be an active citizen; and use your knowledge, training and skills in the service of humane, just causes.”

This is the advice offered to youth by Dr Joel Modiri (28), senior lecturer in the Department of Jurisprudence in the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria (UP). He holds a Bachelor of Laws degree and a PhD from UP, which he completed in 2018, and teaches legal philosophy and advanced legal, social and political theory at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

He reminds young people that the current moment demands that “we learn about and engage with the many struggles taking place across time and space to dismantle dehumanising structures of power and to rebuild a new world”. Critical thinking and action are needed to “make possible a future where everyone can experience a liveable, affirming existence, free from violence, poverty and oppression. Such a future will not be possible if we do not also stand up for the survival of the planet”.

Dr Modiri stresses that the global call is for a revolutionary transformation of the social order, which will take both determination and imagination to realise. As an academic, his main research focus areas are critical race theory, African jurisprudence, law and identity, feminist political philosophy, black political thought, legal education and critical pedagogy, as well as critical theories of human rights and constitutionalism. “The central concern of my teaching and research relate to the development of a critical anti-racist, post-conquest jurisprudence through which to contemplate possibilities for liberation, decolonisation and historical justice in South Africa and beyond,” he explains.

Dr Modiri is involved in two projects: one on Black Consciousness and post-1994 South African jurisprudence; and another on an alternative paradigm of constitutionalism derived from African history and philosophy (generally theorised as “constitutional abolitionism”). “In both cases, the focus of my research is on theorising from the standpoint of Africanist and black radical intellectual traditions developed on the continent and in the diaspora,” he says.

At just 28, he is a high-achieving academic. Some notable achievements include having his first Department of Higher Education and Training-accredited publication in 2011 as a second-year student, and having close to 20 publications to date. He also won the Best Lecturer Award from 2016 to 2018, and has held three fellowships (at the Wits Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Oxford University and the University of Columbia). He has been cited twice in Constitutional Court judgements (AfriForum v UFS and Tshabala v S…) and in three major student textbooks. Dr Modiri is editor-in-chief of the South African Journal on Human Rights, the leading public law journal in South Africa, and is a member of the Section 11 Committee on Equality at the South African Human Rights Commission.

Dr Modiri’s academic interests in academic scholarship and “a life of the mind” were sparked by the “paradoxically enabling environment” at UP where he studied between 2010 and 2013.  “At the time, the Department of Jurisprudence was a vibrant, leading space for critical legal theory, which is a way of thinking about law from a more socially and politically engaged perspective, incorporating political philosophy, social identities, literature and aesthetics.” His former mentors in that department, Professors Tshepo Madlingozi and Karin van Marle, introduced him to this literature and guided him in the early stages of his career.

To youth he has this to say: “Seek intellectual stimulation and resist the pressure to truncate your education in pursuit of a high-paying job and conformity to the norms of the market and state. Instead, use your time at UP to discover the histories, literature, knowledge, languages, cultures and discourses that have made and unmade the world. Approach your studies with an ethic of public-spiritedness.”

 

- Author Primarashni Gower

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