Profile with Sindiso Mnisi Weeks  

Sindiso Mnisi Weeks (South Africa-at-Large & New College 2005) is a senior researcher in the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town. She works on the Rural Women's Action-Research project which focuses on traditional courts, combining research and policy work on women, land and customary law. Sindiso holds a PhD in Law from the University of Oxford as well as a BA in Law, Philosophy and Language and LLB from the University of Cape Town.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite childhood memory?

Sindiso Mnisi: The one that comes to mind actually relates to Oxford, which I think is fun because it’s slightly uncanny. When I was small, my dad used to tell people that I was going to go to Oxford one day. This was when I was around eight years old. The interesting thing is that he had never been to Oxford. He had just heard of this place where he supposed smart people got educated. I’m sure he associated it with the Queen and royalty and success – all good things. He had it in mind that it was the place I was going to end up and I think that’s kind of sweet.

Rhodes Project: What surprised you most about your time at Oxford?

Sindiso Mnisi: I guess two things surprised me. I spent my gap year after high school in the UK in East Sussex, at a school where I was a teacher’s aide. I didn’t bargain for Oxford to be so different from the rest of England or from the part of UK that I’d spent my gap year in. I went to Oxford thinking, “been there, done that”. It actually turned out to be worlds apart. It’s not really representative of British culture. It’s representative of a very elite section of British culture and then, especially among the graduate students, a mix of really smart people from all over the world. I think I hadn’t bargained for that and it took me a while to wrap my head around it.

The other main thing that surprised me was the fact that the in-class education wasn’t what defined it. Of course it mattered that they had good courses and great research, but, especially at PhD level when so much of your work is self-study, what defined my experience at Oxford in the end was the time I spent outside of class in social spaces, interacting and having discussions with students– mostly the graduate population and particularly the Rhodes community.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a little bit about what you were doing in East Sussex during your gap year?

Sindiso Mnisi: I was at a school based in Battle, which is where the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. The site of the school is amazing. It’s this old heritage site with very old buildings and cloisters – all the things that are very quaintly British. The school is both a primary school and a high school so I was partly a house mistress, helping out in the boarding houses for the junior and senior students. I also helped in English and drama classes a bit. It was a great community to be a part of and a great way to get a sense of England. The village is very small – around 4,000 people – so that was also a very different experience compared to Johannesburg, where I grew up, which is a city of around nine million people.

Rhodes Project: When did you first become interested in customary law?

Sindiso Mnisi: I think my interest in customary law sort of crept up on me. When I decided I was going to go to law school, I wanted to be a corporate litigator or something like that. Then I took a little bit of a detour at university. In South Africa, you can do a law degree at undergraduate level, graduate level or by doing both, as a joint degree. I chose the joint degree option. The first year, you do just the arts courses if you are doing a bachelor of arts. I really loved the humanities. I just fell for them hook, line and sinker. What I loved the most was post-colonial studies: African literature and African critiques of Western literature, writing back to the colonial masters and critiquing the master texts that have for a long time sought to define Africans. When I got to the end of the arts degree portion, I wasn’t sure I wanted to carry on and complete the law degree portion. Then I figured I would probably regret it if I didn’t finish what I had started, so I decided to finish the second degree.

When I got to my final year of law school, one of the compulsory courses, which I actually ended up teaching when I returned to UCT after my DPhil, was African Customary Law. I wanted to combine law, post-colonial literature and the humanities and social science critiques of the relationship between African and Western culture; African customary law became the ideal space for that because one of the biggest questions asked in that field is how the indigenous system of law can still find expression within the context of the mostly western system of law which we have in our country as a result of colonialism. It became a space for me to give voice to the interests I had developed during my undergraduate years but hadn’t thought I’d be able to express in conventional law. 

Rhodes Project: What made you decide to focus your legal work on women?

Sindiso Mnisi: I’ve always been passionate about women; I went to an all girls’ school so women have been a big part of my life. In my family, we have very strong women. I’ve always valued the wisdom, fortitude and resilience that women have, but I didn’t set out looking to focus on women. When I initially started doing the research on customary law, I was mostly interested in the questions of harmonization between indigenous laws and the Western-styled state system. I ended up picking a topic which was very timely because the constitutional court had just handed down a decision about women’s rights of inheritance under customary law. In researching that, I focused a lot on women. As a result, I have ended up being very interested in women’s participation in the customary law system because I think change on the ground is important and is largely dependent on growing women’s effective participation. 

Demographically, for instance, women are the largest proportion of people living in rural areas under customary laws. Because customary laws are predominantly patriarchal, women don’t get enough say in the decision-making processes of their communities. Consequently, there’s real tension in development in terms of women being the main members of the community and the ones who probably impact the community’s development the most on the ground, and the fact that they do not have the authority to determine the most significant questions about how to rule the community and what laws should govern it.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a little bit about the research you are doing right now?

Sindiso Mnisi: Right now, I am focusing on dispute resolution. I’m writing a book on the way in which traditional courts operate in rural communities in terms of indigenous law rather than in terms of the legislation that’s tried to govern them. There’s a real dissonance between what the legislation says they look like and how they actually work. At present, the government is trying to overhaul the legislation that exists, which dates back to 1927. The research that I’ve done is hopefully going to contribute to conversations about what the legislation should look like now, to keep up with the change that has taken place and the practical needs people have for access to justice in terms of customary law.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite project you’re working on?

Sindiso Mnisi: My husband and I are an interracial couple. He is American and I’m South African. After a while of being together and having all sorts of interesting experiences that reflect on the state of race relations in both of our countries, we decided we wanted to blog about it. So we write a blog at about our experiences that raises questions about race-relations and the political and socio-economic circumstances surrounding race in both of our countries.

Rhodes Project: If you could change one thing about land laws in South Africa, what would it be and why?

Sindiso Mnisi: It’s actually quite simple. Rural people don’t have secure tenure rights. As things currently stand, the customary laws that govern land rights are not properly recognized in legislation. Part of the history of our country is that rural people were largely moved to limited areas of land that were less productive, while the white government took over the vast majority of productive land and gave it to white farmers. The current government, in the process of trying to deal with restitution and returning the land to indigenous rural communities, should do two things. They need to change the laws so that rural people’s land is no longer owned by the state. Instead of just being beneficial occupiers, they should actually have title of the land. The second change concerns our Constitution. The government is supposed to enact legislation to give rural people, who were disenfranchised and dispossessed under the old order, secure tenure rights. That hasn’t been done yet. The government did pass legislation in 2004, but it was very problematic and was ultimately overturned by the Constitutional Court. It is a constitutional obligation, but I think they are stuck and unsure of what to do. They don’t really have the capacity to legislate accordingly and they’re not appealing to the people who actually do know what could work.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you offer to a young woman pursuing a career in law?

Sindiso Mnisi: My advice would be to know that you can do almost anything with a law degree. It doesn’t necessarily confine you to practicing in a corporate law firm. There are so many useful, meaningful things that you can do with a law degree, so open yourself up to those options. Open yourself up to the possibility of doing something unconventional with your qualifications, rather than automatically entering the corporate law mill, as it were.

Rhodes Project: What do you like to do outside of work?

Sindiso Mnisi: I love reading, so I do a lot of that. At times, I’m a little put off because I do so much reading for my work that I sometimes can’t bear to even look at a book at home. I also like spending time with my friends. I love dinner parties and coffee dates. Those sorts of things make me really happy. I like playing squash, so that’s a really fun form of exercise that also works well as a de-stresser.

Rhodes Project: What is something you are looking forward to right now?

Sindiso Mnisi: I am looking forward to a trip to Brazil. I got invited to deliver one of the keynote addresses at this conference hosted by the International Association for Social and Legal Philosophy. I’ve never given a keynote so I’m really excited, as well as intimidated. It’s in Brazil, which makes it even better. My husband is going to come along and we’re going to make the most of our first trip to South America. We’ll spend some time in Brazil and then hop over to Argentina for a few days. That’s something I’m really excited about. 

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