24 april 2012 – Visit to the University of Western Cape

By Jan-Kostijn Dieben

Living in a small country like the Netherlands forces you to realize that the rest of the world is a big place. However, there is a difference between this realization and actually knowing the world around you. Travelling around, meeting other people and studying differing societies brings actual knowledge of the world around us and makes you see the unintended prejudices we carry with us.

On the 24th of April 2012 the Molengraaff Dispuut of Utrecht University had the honor of visiting the University of Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa and meeting with their top 40 students. The UWC had arranged a full afternoon programme in which the Dutch students were introduced to the South African legal system in several lectures, leading up to a debate where students from both universities teamed up to heatedly discuss the balance and conflicts between different Constitutional Rights. The day was concluded with some drinks and the possibility for an informal chat between students and teachers.

It was a great experience and a wonderful opportunity to learn more about, and from, this country on the other side of the equator. And yes, there is much more to South Africa than the Kruger park and the FIFA World Cup 2010.

The afternoon started with a tour around the campus in which the UWC students showed us the main sites, told us about campus life and brought us the best place to have lunch. Having left the Netherlands with rain all around us, the sunny grounds of UWC seemed a very good place to spend your days. Our hosts not all being South African, it was interesting to learn that, similar to the European Erasmus Programme, there is a growing pan-African exchange of students between different universities.

Following the tour it was time for more substantive activities. Ms. K. Chinnian gave an introductionary lecture on the South African legal system. As Dutch students it was fascinating to learn more about the South African mix between the inherited Dutch Civil Law, the English Common Law and the Indigenous Customary Law and Ms. Chinnian provided us with clear overview of the legal system.

Mr. A Samuels deepened this knowledge base with a lecture on the effects of the South African Constitution on property rights. We were very happy he could accommodate this as, being a study society for private law students, we were very interested in the subject prior to our visit. South Africa has a lot of experience with the reach of Constitutional Rights as they work both vertically and horizontally. Coming from the unequal years of Apartheid the balance that must be struck between respecting existing property rights, and restoring equality amongst South Africans leads to difficult legal debates. Mr. Samuels’ clear lecture gave us more insight in the legal instruments that enable the judiciary to strike this balance.

Continuing on the balance of Constitutional Rights, Mr. W. le Roux provided us with an outline of a recent case of the South African Constitutional Court on the balance between the freedom of expression and the right of private life. The case concerned a fifteen year old student who was sued by his teacher for distributing a photo shopped picture where the teacher’s head was attached to a homo erotic scene.  Mr. le Roux gave us more insight on the case which we had studied beforehand and pointed out the main legal issues thus providing a very good starting point for the debate that followed.

For the debate, perhaps the best part of the day, students from both universities teamed up to discuss different theorems ranging from “children have a bigger right to freedom of expression” to “satire can never be defaming”. This led to heated discussions where people chose sides, not on basis of their country, culture, race or university, but on basis of their opinions on erring being part of learning, the need for children to be corrected as part of education or the sensitivity/immunity of authority to criticism and ridicule.

The impressive debating skills of the top 40 students, the numerous jokes in the discussion and the valuable insights in different opinions made the debate a great experience. During the informal drinks that followed the substantive programme, students from both universities were chatting away as if they already knew each other before the visit. This was an inspiring experience and makes one truly believe that education and exchange of ideas enable us to bridge different backgrounds.

Summarizing, we can say that the visit to UWC was a great experience. We want to thank the staff, the teachers and the students of UWC for hosting us. Especially we want to thank professor Sloth-Nielsen for arranging the whole visit. Also we are very grateful to our own teachers at Utrecht University for supporting the visit and our sponsors for making it possible to travel to South Africa.

Hopefully one day we will get the opportunity to show our friends from UWC a similar hospitality in the Netherlands.

On behalf of the Molengraaff Dispuut,

Jan-Kostijn Dieben
President Molengraaff Dispuut