On The Blue Couch with Wesahl Domingo

I caught up with Professor Wesahl Domingo, a full professor of law and the Executive Dean of the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Law. Wesahl is a career academic and has made an immense contribution to the academic institutions she has been a part of.
Wesahl has written extensively on Family Law, Child Law, Succession, Gender Studies, Legal Education and Legal Pluralism. She has presented her work at conferences throughout the world including Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Hawaii, Boston, New York, Wisconsin, Minneapolis and Seattle. She has also made several appearances on television and radio as an academic expert in the field of family law and legal pluralism.
In addition to the above, Wesahl is also an accredited family law mediator and does family law mediation training (focusing on different cultures and religions) for NGO’s. She also runs community workshops for women on culture and religion within marriage and divorce.
In this Blue Couch session, we spoke about her journey as a law lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and subsequently a senior manager at the University of Johannesburg.
Wesahl explained how she got into academia.

There was a lot of discrimination at that time, I wore a scarf. When I went into the law firm they said to me ‘oh, there’s people like you’ and they showed me the secretaries. And so I felt discrimination within the law firm as well as the clientele that was there, they wanted a particular look. I then went back to UWC and I was walking around trying to find one of my lecturers, just to discuss this feeling that I had. I couldn’t find my identity and place. And as I was walking I saw a small little advert which said there’s this exchange programme between Wits and Columbia University and they were looking for applicants to do the LLM in New York. And when I saw this I was like, ‘wow! New York! That’s where I want to be!’ I applied for it. I had to come to Johannesburg for the interview. Part of that agreement was that we would teach. So, we went over [to New York] and we came back to teach and I remained in that teaching profession, and as an academic, for many, many years; over 20 years.

Wesahl spoke about the day she realised she was not cut out to work in a big corporate law firm.

I applied at one of the top law firms and I think we are socialised to believe that you are successful when you get into a top law firm. I was there for three months, and we were dealing with a fishing case. There were the fishermen and then there was a big corporate fishing company. I was fighting for the corporate, and then I realised, I’m on the wrong side. I need to be with the fishermen. I think you would know, when you practice law, where your heart is. Are you more of a human rights person, or can you fight for the big corporates and be okay with that.

We spoke about some of the benefits academia presented that she would not necessarily have gotten as a practising lawyer.

We do get opportunities to travel and engage and that’s part of being an academic; to go to conferences. But something else which academia gave me was the ability to shape lives. And when I say shape lives it’s to make a difference in someone’s life, that can be absolutely changing in terms of a path that they take. So I’ve had many, many students who come back to me and has said to me, ‘if it wasn’t for you, I would not be here. Every time I’m I’m in court I hear your voice in my head, because that’s the way you teach.’ And so, for me, it has a different satisfaction. It is to shape minds and to shape the future. In academia we get an opportunity to shape society and make an impact in the way in which we think about the law.

She spoke about how she remains authentic in her role as a senior manager.

When you take up these senior positions and people do look at you as if it is a token position, you have to have the courage to fight back. I believe that there should be trust honesty, integrity, and accountability. When I take on a task, I ask myself, ‘can I defend any argument or anything that I put forward?’ That is very important to me.

She also touched on becoming ‘token fatigued’ in organisations where there are not many people of colour in senior positions.

I think you do get, I want to say ‘token fatigued’. Where, after a while, it’s like, ‘stop using me, I’m tired!’ If you want transformation then get more people into the system. But you also get abused in that particular way so most of your time is taken up by being a colour representative or the gender representative on a committee, so you also have to be careful.

She spoke about how people of colour in the academy can now take the transformation agenda to the next level.

Back then, just to be in front of a class to teach was revolutionary. That was an amazing, historic moment to get people through the door, but I think we need much more. What we need now is a different type of transformation and I think that is what students were calling for when it was #FeesMustFall. The idea of decolonisation of education. So, you may have a face of colour, but what’s coming out and what’s being taught is not decolonised at all. We still teach the same old curriculum, whether you have a white face, a black face, whatever face it is. And so my goal really is to engage students in the context in which they live in South Africa, in the context of the diversity of the students that we have. I often have colleagues who say, ‘oh, if students are late, I close the door, or if students are late they must stand outside’. I often look at these students and I note them and I would go after class and ask them what happened. You would find it’s a student that’s coming from a long distance, actually left home at half past five, but something happened to the taxi or the train. So we can’t make assumptions about the students that we have. That’s part of the decolonisation process. Not just being a black face, but teaching in a way that you relate to students, and the context in which they live.

Lastly, she shared some advice for students who may be thinking of studying law:

I did a Bachelor of Social Science degree, I would encourage students to do that if they want to do a law degree. I think you should do a BA, or social science degree. Going from high school straight into law is not great. I feel that you need to expand your horizon and really know whether law is something you want to do. You should be learning philosophy and politics. Also, if you are going to apply to study law, look at the curriculum of the institution where you want to apply to. Do they have initiatives that you want? Are they more focused on corporate subjects or do they offer the human rights and the corporate law subjects. Do they have a law clinic? I think it’s very important, because in law clinics you have wonderful experiences.

This article presents a paraphrased summary of our chat. The full interview can be watched here.