From teenage rebel to respected legal scholar

2008-07-25 00:00

She might be about to be the first female dean of Law at the University of Cape Town, but when P.J. Schwikkard started studying law, she found it boring.

She switched to a B.Comm, “which was even more boring, so I switched to an Arts degree, and then just went travelling”.

These days, Schwikkard loves the law. “I love academia and I love universities, because they are full of wonderful, intelligent, quirky people to interact with all day,” she says.

The former St Anne’s pupil, who describes herself as rebellious, absent-minded and “not very good at protocol”, is regarded as an accomplished scholar with many years of experience in academia and the legal profession. She sits on the SA Law Commission and is deputy dean and head of the department of Public Law. She will succeed Hugh Corder next year.

With all these accolades, she carries a delightful aura of youthful irreverence, saying she sometimes “overlooks the rules of social etiquette”.

Schwikkard grew up in Groutville on the north coast, “where Albert Luthuli and John Hlophe came from”, and when she was 15 moved to Richmond where her parents farmed sugar and citrus.

“My main focus in life was sport … athletics, swimming, hockey, tennis and gymnastics,” she says. She swims and hikes regularly in Cape Town.

Schwikkard went to the University of Witwatersrand to do a BA in Law. After travelling in Europe and North America for a couple of years, she decided she wanted a professional degree.

“So I went back to law school, in Pietermaritzburg in 1984, aged 24, and just loved it.”

She is from a “PFP [Progressive Federal Party] type of family”, and decided to go into law because apartheid rested on a legal structure. Having worked for the PFP in the midlands, she joined the United Democratic Front and became the chairwoman of the Pietermaritzburg branch of white democrats. She also worked with People’s Courts in Imbali.

Transformation has always been close to her heart. “Financial access to the university is difficult. Our scholarships get taken up and we could do with more of them.”

Schwikkard finds that university students these days are more disciplined and more competitive than she and her peers were. “I think that when universities were places for spoilt, white middle-class kids, it was a whole different ball game.”

What disturbs her about life and the law in SA today? Schwikkard replies, “At the broader political level, I don’t like the way the debate is splitting along race lines … The criminal justice sytem is also clearly a big problem.”

But, she adds, “Whenever I get the South African pessimism bug, I think back to the 1980s and what we survived … The fact that society is out there debating and not liking things tells me that things are OK.”

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