UP’s 32-year-old Deputy Dean is an epitome of black excellence

October 26th, 2020
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The University of Pretoria recently made a historic appointment when it appointed Associate Professor, Charles Maimela, as the youngest black Deputy Dean in the university’s Faculty of Law on 1 August 2020.

By Kgomotso Ramotsho

The University of Pretoria (UP) recently made a historic appointment when it appointed Associate Professor, Charles Maimela, as the youngest black Deputy Dean in the university’s Faculty of Law on 1 August 2020. He holds an LLD from the University of South Africa (Unisa). His LLD focused on medical law. De Rebus had the opportunity to interview Prof Maimela.

Kgomotso Ramotsho (KR): Briefly tell us about yourself.

Deputy Dean, Professor Maimela (CM): I am Charles from Mamelodi, I grew up in Mamelodi in a township called B3. I am Tsonga speaking and I completed high school at Jafta Mahlangu High School. After high school, I went to Unisa where I studied for my law degree, but initially I wanted to be a teacher.

KR:  You wanted to be a teacher, how did you end up in the legal profession?

CM: My grandmother used to work at UP. So, she knew the culture, how the university operates and said that I should go and study there. When I went to UP, I was unfortunately, not accepted, because I did not have the marks they required. Our high school teachers at the time were not too keen to allow us to do our subjects in higher grade, but in standard grade. The whole aim was just for them to have a good pass rate. My dreams were shattered to become a teacher and I went back home, back to the drawing board.

KR: What happened next?

CM: Then there was Unisa, I remember there were long application lines at Unisa, the line for education was very long, and the line for law was not that long. There were academic advisers who asked what I wanted to study and I told them my first choice was education and my second choice was law, right there the adviser said to me: ‘You can see the line for law is a bit shorter, you can rather go there don’t you think?’ I was very keen to study so I went with law.

I did my access programme in law at Unisa for a full year, because I did not have a matric exemption, from there on I completed my LLB, LLM and LLD at Unisa. You can say that I am a Unisa boy.

KR: Did you practise as a legal practitioner after you had completed your studies?

CM: I did practise a bit, but I am more of an academic. I excelled extensively in academia and I enjoy working with my students extensively, to make a difference in young people’s career projections and ambition. It is a very overwhelming and exciting exercise, when you walk in a mall and you run into your students and they embrace you, it is priceless and teaching is something that is close to my heart to make sure that as an academic or a practitioner of law I am able to change people’s lives in a constructive and meaningful way.

KR: How long have you been lecturing?

CM: My entire career of practising and teaching, can be summed up to ten or 11 years.

KR: What does a Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Law do?

CM: The Deputy Dean of a faculty is a second dean in command. You ensure that all operations in the faculty are functional. That the needs of staff and students are addressed, in terms of resources and support. In terms of ensuring that the academic calendar and the academic programme is running smoothly without any hindrance. To resolve the internal conflicts of colleagues in terms of teaching and learning. To ensure that there is a collegial and constructive environment where effective teaching and learning can take place.

The Deputy Dean is part of the management committee of the university. I sit in various university committees, to ensure that the goals of the university are in line with the goals of the Faculty of Law. And I interact with the legal profession, especially legal practitioners to ensure that our curriculum is in line with what the legal profession requires on our side. The Deputy Dean works hand in glove with the Dean. In a nutshell, the Deputy Dean is the head of the teaching and learning of the faculty.

KR: How does one become a Deputy Dean?

CM: In my case, I never aspired to become a Deputy Dean. The dream was just to become a professor and live a very quiet and peaceful life of teaching, research, travel in terms of attending conferences overseas, build up my curriculum vitae, interact with legal practitioners or maybe go back to practise. Those were some of my career ambitions. But you would agree with me that young people of colour, we tend to speak of issues of decolonisation and transformation in various career positions, in various institutions we find ourselves in.

But one fundamental question is that we want transformation to take place, however, in most instances we do not want to be participants of that transformation. We have to lead the charge, so this position is a position, which colleagues encouraged me to apply for. They said I could be a good Deputy Dean, but I had to ponder around it and then I applied. I went through a robust process where when I applied to become Deputy Dean, I was not yet a professor, but I was a doctor. I had to first go through the appointment process to be promoted to the level of associate professor and then after I went through the process where I went through the interview process to become a Deputy Dean.

KR: How do you exercise or keep your mind active, so that you are able to execute all your tasks?

CM: I am a member of the young man’s guild at the Methodist Church. I devote my time to singing, to thank God for life in general. I would not say I have not seen God in my life with this position, it would be disingenuous. It was a long journey and God was by my side. To treat people with values of respect and compassion, irrespective of where they come from is very central and that is what keeps me sane. I also do try my level best to jog around the block two or three times a week just to keep fit and I read.

KR: What is your favourite book and why?

CM: The book of Steve Bantu Biko I write what I like. It tells you intellectually, that as academia, our voice is in the democratic dispensation. It must always be heard; we must be able to express ourselves in a meaningful and constructive manner to ensure that the society becomes transformed for the better.

When Steve Biko wrote all those views in the book, imagine what you and I can do in the democratic dispensation. We just have to vision or see our lives beyond what we are today. That is why I hold that book very close to my heart, among other things which I have read, which I aspire to read in the future.

KR: What do you think about the quality of the LLB in South Africa (SA)?

CM: The LLB in SA is in good standing, it is in good shape. It needs a bit of tweaking here and there, particularly in the aspect of decolonisation and transformation for it to be in line with the values and cultural, as well as democratic values of our country, to say that we must have an inclusive LLB that is so dynamic and that speaks to the realities of everybody in our country without anyone saying I do not relate with this type of law or this law is boring.

You would agree with me that law regulates our daily activity, it must in a way, be aligned with how society is. For us in academia, we particularly need to ensure that our LLB addresses all the social ills, which guarantees that everyone in this country is able to uphold the rule of law. The issue of African customary law is something that still needs serious development and we try to reach out to industry to say, the industry and academia need to hold hands that this legal system called African customary law is fully developed to ensure that it is in line with the Constitution, as the supreme law, as well as operating parallel to the common law.

KR: The whole world, including SA was deep in the pandemic, even when you were appointed at the time, SA was dealing with COVID-19. How did the faculty of law at UP make sure that it still delivers quality learning?

CM: From the university’s perspective the university did its level best to ensure that we reach out to all our students, irrespective of location to provide them with the necessary aid through the difficult time. Laptops and tablets were provided to indigent students, some were delivered and couriered to them. Furthermore, the university made provisions for data for students who do not have access to data to make sure there is equitable data, so that students are able to continue during this emergency remote teaching (ERT) process, because we are currently operating under ERT.

As the Faculty of Law, we have strived to make sure that even though it was a challenge in the beginning that we are making it our new normal to make sure that all our students are on board even though we are leaning with the integration phases of ERT. But now we have completed the first semester successfully we are almost into the ultimate to complete the second semester. We have mastered the art of ERT, in the law faculty we have explored extensively the utilisation of assignments, where students are now starting to draft legal documents to enhance their writing argumentative skills, critical thinking in the comfort of their own home.

Those are some of the fundamental values which we are still instilling in our students even though we do not see them face to face.

KR: Do you have any sport that you like and why?

CM: I used to play cricket when I was younger, it is a sport which I often watch and enjoy. I think it is a calm sport, it calms ones nerves, you need to be tactical, you need to think and be strategic. And to keep a balance between physical and mental well-being, that is why I choose cricket.

KR: You are from Mamelodi, are you by any chance a Mamelodi Sundowns fan?

CM: I am. HM Pitje Stadium is actually about a kilometre away from where I grew up and I also like to brag to my students that I am from Mamelodi, the place Mamelodi Sundowns come from.

KR: What is that one thing that you would tell your first-year students?

CM: Have your dreams. We are not here to give students dreams; we are here to help students reach their dreams. To enhance their dreams and make them a reality. The dreams of our students must be abstract, they must not be easily understood, they must be extremely strange, but as a faculty we must make that dream clear and be a reality, be understood by students and the community where they come from.

KR: Who is your support structure?

CM: I get my support from everyone, good or bad, even when someone criticises me it builds and shapes my character. My support structure I draw it from all levels of society, in Mamelodi where I come from, I go there once in a week. And to hear a person just stop you when you pass by and shine the light on you and say it is possible and thank you, that inspires me. That person grounds me to realise the vision of Nelson Mandela and all the struggle icon who fought for our country for an inclusive society.

KR: What is the one principle that you think a legal practitioner should live by?

CM: Humility, because you deal with different people with different circumstances. Humility moulds you to adapt into different situations, different conditions, different people different working spaces, challenges. I see people with humility go far in life, it does not make you redundant as an individual. To a legal practitioner in service of our people, humility should be a central value which they should have.

KR:  What can we expect from you in five years’ time?

CM: Maybe in five years’ time I might maybe be the next dean or the next vice principal or even the next principal. There is nothing wrong in dreaming.

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.