#WomenOfUP: Honouring UP Chancellor Sisi Khampepe, a ‘trailblazing jurist of vast intellect, uncompromising integrity, grace and diligence’

Posted on August 01, 2022

It is fitting that the start of Women’s Month at the University of Pretoria (UP) goes hand in hand with the appointment of a new symbolic head of the institution, a woman of intellect and integrity who has been hailed for her trailblazing career.

On 28 June, Justice Sisi Khampepe, former judge of South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, was appointed Chancellor of UP. She took over from Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu, who had served in the role for 15 years.

The chancellor of a university is the ceremonial head of the institution. It is a voluntary position and the main role is to award degrees at graduation ceremonies. Together with the executive of the Convocation – a statutory body that consists of university’s graduates, current and retired academics – the chancellor represents the interests of graduates and strives to enhance the global reputation of the university.

Justice Khampepe is an apt figurehead for UP, an institution that is recognised for its commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment, which are central to the University’s transformation strategy. In fact, more than 50% of its researchers are women, of which 15,34% are black women, and it is concertedly working towards a demographic of 50% female professors to bring women into leadership positions.

“With the assistance of Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe, I hope to ensure that there is conspicuous transformation, not only in the intake of black students, but also in the academic field,” Justice Khampepe said.

Born in Soweto, Justice Khampepe went to school in KwaDlangezwa in KwaZulu-Natal and became a judge upon the advice of a teacher who was coordinating the debating team at her high school.

“He told me that I reminded him of Helen Suzman,” she recalled, referring to the South African human rights activists who for six years was the only female in the then all-white Parliament, and for 13 years, the only MP of the Progressive Party and so the only voice there speaking out against apartheid legislation.

“He said that if I went to university, I should study law like she had in order to speak out on behalf of the oppressed people of this country.”

While Justice Khampepe went on to study economics and economic history, that notion, she said, planted the seed for her eventual entry into the legal profession. However, her initial foray into studying law was fairly disheartening, she recalled.

“At my first lecture, a white male lecturer exclaimed that there were too many women in the class. He told us that law was not meant for women and that we should rather register at the Faculty of Social Work or Education while the window to do so was open. He warned us that if we did not heed his advice, we would fail.”

But that experience only served to make Justice Khampepe even more resolute to succeed.

“I remained determined to prove him wrong – and by Jove, did I prove him wrong,” she said. “Not only did I pass all my tests, but I was always one of the top in my class.”

And she continued to achieve. After graduating with a B Proc from the University of Zululand in 1980, she obtained an LLM degree at Harvard University in the US two years later.

“I became focused on the need to interpret the constitution, which is a blueprint of our society,” she said.

Being a judge in the Constitutional Court taught her “to understand and appreciate that nothing beats hard work”. The main challenge, she said, was the volume of work, which included reading voluminous records from lower courts, written submissions by litigants and research.

“With regard to research, I was greatly assisted by my hardworking clerks, but you have to work hard to overcome the hurdles that come with the work of the Constitutional Court.”

Justice Sisi Khampepe is well respected in the legal community. When she retired from the Constitutional Court in 2021, Acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo spoke of her “quiet yet fierce strength”, saying she had been “a jurist of vast intellect, uncompromising integrity and inimitable style. She led and followed with grace, kindness and diligence”.

He described her legal career of more than 40 years as “trailblazing”, adding that her time on the bench of the Constitutional Court had been “marked and celebrated as a period during which she eloquently developed jurisprudence on the rights of women and children, and other vulnerable members of society”.

Justice Khampepe is also recognised for her judicial bravery. “Her last two well-known judgements related to the work of the State Capture Commission of Inquiry, and strengthened the rule of law and the principle of equality before the law,” Acting Chief Justice Zondo said.

Chairman of the UP Council Kuseni Dlamini echoed the praise. “Justice Khampepe epitomises the values and character that UP requires in its chancellor and the qualities we seek to develop in our students,” he said.

As for the values that Justice Khampepe holds dear, she had this to say: “Skills and a desire to grow, succeed and contribute to society lead to success.” She urges young girls and women in particular who aspire to reach her level of achievement “to remain steadfast and work hard in their careers. That has certainly been my motto”.

“The role of institutions of higher learning cannot be underrated,” she added. “They are responsible for shaping the minds and hearts of our future lawyers, and impart important knowledge and skills in the advocacy of the rights of women, children and vulnerable members of society.”

 

- Author Department of Institutional Advancement
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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