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Sun Oct 23 08:17:17 SAST 2016

Prof comes home to take helm of SA's top law school

Aarti J Narsee | 28 January, 2016 00:41
DEAN OF LAW: Penelope Andrews

If it wasn't for a long weekend in KwaZulu-Natal on her boyfriend's motorcycle, Penelope Andrews may not have ended up as the new dean of law at the University of Cape Town.

The trip got her fired, her new job led to a bursary to study law, and she ended up teaching around the world and even being interviewed for a seat on the Constitutional Court.

Now the 60-year-old professor, who was born and raised in the coloured community of Kensington in Cape Town, has come home from New York to take the helm of South Africa's leading law school.

Although she has settled in Sea Point, when she visits her sisters, neighbours still recognise her.

Andrews didn't need the UCT job - she was the 165-year-old Albany Law School's first female president and dean - but she wanted to come home for the sake of her sisters' two granddaughters and their peers.

"My family - my two sisters and brother - didn't finish high school. I always felt this need to give back," she said.

"I have taught for 20 years . For me the big passion is moulding and being involved in the next generation of South African professionals who will make the promise of the constitution a reality."

Andrews was separated from her siblings when she was 10 after her parents divorced, and her mother died when she was 13.

But she counts herself as "privileged", as she was the only sibling to complete her schooling at Immaculata Catholic High in Wittebome.

"The nuns took a great interest in me. I did very well in school, they offered to pay for everything."

As a young coloured woman who grew up in the apartheid era, Andrews was encouraged to be a secretary. Her first job was at a Johannesburg law firm but that spontaneous weekend changed her life.

"I met a man from Durban on a motorbike and, you know, I was young, and we took a motorbike trip to Durban for a long weekend and I didn't tell [the firm] and when I came back I was fired.

"It was the best thing that happened to me. His sister was a student at the University of Natal and they were looking for someone to be a secretary/coordinator of the legal aid clinic."

She took the job and received a bursary to study a bachelor of arts and later law. She went on to teach in Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam. The photos on her new desk at UCT, where she is the first black dean of law, are proof that she holds her own among top legal minds around the world.

It was the injustices of apartheid which encouraged her to be a lawyer, she says.

"I wanted to become a lawyer so that I could have power to help people. If I hadn't become a lawyer I would have been a social worker or a nun."

After graduating she worked at the Legal Resources Centre then received a scholarship to do her Master's at Colombia Law School in New York, where she became involved in anti-apartheid activism.

Even now she sees herself as an activist. "My contact with SA has always been deep and strong professionally. I see myself as an educational and cultural ambassador for SA."


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