Start main page content

Urban Law Day

Following a partnership agreement between the two institutions in 2018,  the Wits School of Law and the UN-Habitat Urban Legislation Unit  co-hosted an “Urban Law Day” at the Law School’s Chalsty Centre on Friday 29 March 2019. While the Urban Legislation Unit had held several such “urban law days” before, this was the first to take place in the global South.

“Urban law” is a broad term referring to laws impacting on urbanisation, urban governance  and the urban form. It typically encompasses local govenrment law, planning law, housing law and municipal finance law, and also touches on, for instance, public health law, tax law and environmental law.

The theme for the event, which was organised by the Law School’s professor Marius Pieterse, was “Law, the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Cities”. The idea for the day was to reflect on the readiness of various aspects of domestic legal and constitutional systems in subSaharan Africa for the effective implementation of UN Sustainable Development Goal (‘SDG’) 11 (which calls for safe, sustainable, resilient and inclusive cities) and the associated commitments in the UN New Urban Agenda (‘NUA’).

After words of welcome from professor Pieterse, professor Wesahl Domingo (head of the School of Law) and Mr Robert Lewis-Lettington (chief of the UN-Habitat Urban Legislation Unit), proceedings kicked off with a presentation by professor Anél du Plessis, SARCHi Chair in Cities, Law and Environmental Sustainability at the North-West University in Potchefstroom,  who shared her research on the readiness of South Africa’s legal and policy framework for implementation of SDG11.  Reflecting on the nature of implementation cycles, professor Du Plessis showed that, viewed overarchingly, this framework enabled compliance with all of SDG11’s sub-targets, although it lacked both a specific legislative mandate regarding sustainable urbanism, explicit interlinkages between various legal mechanisms and a consistent framework to ensure that cities are operationally sustainable.

The South African overview was followed by assessments of the state of urban law in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia.  Justice Zione Ntaba from the High Court of Malawi bemoaned the poor alignment of bureaucratic structures and fiscal autonomy to the constitutional and legislative demarcation of local government responsibilities in Malawi, and also noted that the incongruence of Malawian urban law - with laws, policy frameworks and bylaws from different eras and with different purposes seemingly pulling in different directions – complicated the coherent pursuit of the NUA’s aspirations.

Justice Ntaba further hinted that some of the NUA’s underlying assumptions were out of step with the reality of developing world cities, a view shared by Mr Archimedes Muzenda from the African Urban Institute. Relating how Zimbabwean local authoritues have been too occupied with ‘crisis management’-style governance to effectively pursue the NUA’s objectives, Mr Muzenda showed that the realities of informality, economic strain and politically divided authority detracted not only from cities’ ability to pursue the NUA, but also lead to a chasm between ‘official’ legal structures and their functioning ‘on the ground’. He further emphasized the pernicious consequences of party-political struggles on urban governance, illustrating how opposition-run cities’ legal and functional powers have consistently been complicated by actions of the Zimbabwean national government.

According to Mr Cooper Chibomba, president of the Zambian Institute of Planners and associate of the University of Zambia’s Centre for Urban Research and Planning, an effective solution for some of the problems highlighted by Mr Muzenda is to source planning, land use management and related urban governance powers in constitutionally ensconced autonomous local government. In Zambia, Mr Chibomba showed, legal internalization of the SDGs and the NUA coincided with a process of constitutional amendment, leading to Zambian structures of government having been explicitly aligned to these instruments. While Zambian local governments thus enjoy enhanced autonomy and guaranteed access to state resources regardless of political affiliation, and function under an explicit developmental mandate, Mr Chibomba felt that the law nevertheless did not sufficiently enable meaningful public participation in urban governance and also underemphasized the importance of urban land, specifically in relation to mediating between statutory and customary land management regimes.

Mr Chibomba’s concerns over land law and public participation were echoed by other participants, many of whom also emphasized that the timeframe for achieving the goals of SDG11 and the NUA (which both envisage compliance by 2030) was too short, especially given the inevitable ‘lag’ between the conceptualization, adoption and full imeplementation of laws. A further common concern was the state of local government bylaws, which appeared painfully underutilized and out of step not only with the NUA and SDG11, but also with countries’ national urban law frameworks.

After lunch, the focus shifted to municipal finance law, with Dr Matthew Glasser of the Centre for Urban Law and Finance in Africa commending the NUA for its commitment to ensuring that implementation of its substantive targets are appropriately resourced. Taking a critical look at typical local government revenue sources (such as central government grants, service charges, property taxes and borrowing), Dr Glasser warned that financial structures may have the effect of perversely incentivising cities to develop in ways that frustrate the NUA’s goals, such as when they effectively render sprawling developments more lucrative. Related to this, Dr Glasser emphasized that cities’ built form is ulitmately shaped by private capital, the public regulation of which is typically not adequate in most societies.

Many of Dr Glasser’s warnings were borne out by Mr Danga Mughogho, manager of the South African Cities Network (‘SACN’)’s Well-governed Cities Programme, who presented a synopsis of the SACN’s recent ‘State of City Finances’ report. With the central message that both South African cities and their inhabitants are experiencing financial crisis, the report revealed a worrying regressive trend in South African urban municipal service tariff structures. Mr Mughogho also showed that, while South African cities generate enough revenue to fund their operating expenditure, there is insufficient funds to also cover capital expenditure, including essential infrastructure maintenance costs.

In the final session of the day, Mr Lewis-Lettington and Ms. Anne Klen-Amin of the Urban Legislation Unit launched the outcome of a Planning Law Survey conducted by the Unit for the Sub-Saharan Region of the UN Global Sample of Cities. The survey revealed that most of the cities sampled were sprawled beyond their urban development boundaries (which were already disproprotionately large compared to need), and functioned at sub-optimum density levels. The survey further revealed important human resource and administrative capacity-shortcomings in the planning departments of most subSaharan African cities. For example, the number of plans legally required typically far exceeded the number of planners available to cities, with the result that important parts of planning systems were dysfunctional in a significant majority of cities surveyed. Other key findings suggested by the survey included that processes for land acquisition for public purposes tended to be poorly recorded across the region, and that administrative action appeared to be the predominant mode of development planning standard enforcement.

Overall, the information-packed Urban Law Day certainly succeeded in its aim to stimulate dicussion over ways to address shortcomings in existing legal frameworks, as well as related challenges of ‘localising’, ‘legalising’ and implementing the commitments of SDG11 and the NUA.


WITS Moot Court Society Competitions

On the 14th, 15th & 16th of February 2019, the WITS Moot Court Society competed at the African Regional rounds of the Oxford Price Media Moot Court Competition. The team was made up of 3 speakers (Nobuhle Kunene, Shandré Smith & Sophie Smit) and researcher (Anathi Canham).

Coaching the team were the societies exco members Ryan Hosking (Training & Development Officer), Peter Kumbirai (External Competitions Officer) Suhail Mohammed (Internal Competitions Officer) and Kgabo Senyatsi (Chairperson).

After 2 days of preliminary rounds against universities from across Africa, the WITS team made it to the regional finals on the 16th of February at the Constitutional Court of South Africa. The team went on to win the competition; thus being crowned the champions of the African Regional Round!

The team also won an award for Best Written Submissions, whilst Nobuhle Kunene - a final year LLB student - won the award for Best Speaker in the Finals. This marks the first Moot championship of the year, following last year’s win at the Centre of the Child Law.

Congratulations to the team for their hard-work and resilience as they have had to prepare through the december holidays for the moot. Special thanks goes out to the WITS Moot court Society Exco team for supporting and preparing the team for the competition.

The team will be 1 of 5 African teams representing Africa at the Global Finals at Oxford University in April 2019.

Wits will also be competing in the ELSA, ICC, JESSUP and All Africa Competition, and so far have 2 teams which have qualified for the global finals (Price Media Team and ICC team). We wish all teams the best of success in these competitions, and know they will do us proud!

The Wits Moot Court Society is ready to conquer the edge, are you ready? Join the WITS Moot Society Exhibition event on the 7th of March 17:00 - 19:00  and see what moot court is all about! To join the society & any further queries, please contact us at


Local Government Roundtable

View of Great Hall and SWE pic S Gaulle

On Friday 9 November 2018 the School of Law co-hosted an interdisciplinary roundtable on local government law, jointly with the Faculty of Law at the University of North-West (Potchefstroom). Held at the Wits club on West Campus, the purpose of the event was to reflect on legal and policy developments in the local government sphere, in the twenty years since the release of the White Paper on Local Government (1998).

Participants included academics (from disciplines of law, governance and spatial planning), senior local government officials and applied policy researchers from the South African Cities Network. The roundtable reflected on themes of participation, urban resilience and urban sustainability in relation to local government in urban South Africa, in trying both to reflect critically on the achievement of the goals held forth in the White Paper, and to set a future research agenda for local government law in the context of urbanisation, within the normative framework set by, for instance, Goal 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda.


Advocates Detail the Zimbabwe Election Case

By Suhail Mohammed

Legal experts discuss the recent litigation brought by the MDC following the recent Zimbabwean election

It is a commonly held belief here at WITS that the annual blooming of the jacarandas is to signify the beginning of a period in which students forsake the lion’s share of their extra-curricular activities, and focus on preparing for their exams, which are now as clearly discernible on the horizon as is the Hillbrow Tower. This, however, was not the case on Wednesday 10 October, when law students either filed into the Chalsty Auditorium, or rushed onto the live streaming link, to a panel discussion regarding the legal challenge of the outcome of the recent Zimbabwean elections.

Expert Panel

The panel discussion was hosted by the WITS branch of Students for Law and Social Justice  and the Wits School of Law’s Research Chair on Equality, Law and Social Justice - The panellists included legal lodestar, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi; the people’s advocate, Dali Mpofu SC (which was especially exciting, given the proximity of the SRC elections); and much acclaimed international jurist, Arnold Tsunga. Proceedings were coordinated by law school’s very own Prof Cathi Albertyn, a constitutional scholar.

MDC Litigation

Ngcukaitobi and Mpofu shed light upon even the tiniest of details regarding the MDC litigation. These enthralling recollections filled in the many gaps that students had come across while following the case via the media, and left students with a deeper and far more sophisticated understanding of this matter, and the manner in which it wasdecided.

While Ngcukaitobi explained the legal meat and bones of the case, Mpofu SC expanded upon the political implications that such a case can have, especially in a political climate as fragile as Zimbabwe’s. This component of the discussion was of particular interest to a majority of the students who were present at the event, as we are all well aware of the political lifeblood that courses through the veins of the average WITS law student. This is not to say that the legal technicalities were under-appreciated, as Ngcukaitobi found himself engaging with various students on the legal hoops that must be traversed in the handling of such a matter.

International Law

Tsuna was next, and he expounded upon the role of international organisations - specifically the African Union - in the matter at hand. His discussion touched upon the basic tenets of international law, as applied to the Zimbabwean transfer of executive authority, and the impact that these laws can have in the resolution of litigious challenges such as the MDC’s. This, too, attracted the attention of many a student, specifically those who have recently acquainted themselves with the intricacies of public international law.


School of Law Prize Giving

Top Achievers Recognised at Prizegiving

The Wits School of Law’s Annual Prizegiving event was held on Wednesday 9 May 2018

Top-achieving students during the 2017 academic year were recognised at the School of Law’s annual prizegiving event. Students who achieved the highest marks in subjects across our LLB and LLM programme received prizes. Many are sponsored by our partners in the South African legal industry while others commemorate former students and staff members.

This year’s guest address was delivered by Tembinkosi Bonakele, South Africa’s Competition Commission. He detailed the problems of increasing competitiveness to ensure the sustainability of South Africa’s economy. Head of School, Professor Wesahl Domingo also praised students and mingled with parents at her first prizegiving event as Head of School.

To view photos from the event click here.

School of Law Moot Team Wins Big

The School of Law Moot Team has made it to the International Oral Round of the ELSA (European Law Students’ Association) Moot Court Competition

From 9 to 12 April, the ELSA Moot Court Competition on World Trade Organisation Law held its African Regional Round at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

The ELSA Moot Court Competition is a simulation of a WTO panel proceeding. The competition is student-run, organized annually by The European Law Students’ Association (ELSA) in co-operation with the World Trade Organization (WTO).

It is designed to broaden knowledge of international trade law and WTO dispute settlement procedures, with a view to enhancing capacity for meaningful engagement in multilateral trade in the long term. It has a global reach and its participants come from every continent.

This year a record breaking 22 Universities from Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda registered to compete against each other; a 50% increase from the 2016 round. Due to the increase in participating teams, the four best teams qualified for the Final Rounds taking place at the headquarters of the WTO in Geneva, Switzerland in June 2017. Participation of the teams in the African Regional Round is generously sponsored by the African Trade Policy Centre of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, as well as other local, regional, and international donors with a view to supporting the continuing participation of African universities and thereby increasing capacity in Africa in the long term.

Through this competition the participants gain invaluable experience as a supplement to their university degree. By practicing and seeing for themselves how the WTO dispute mechanism works they will have a great insight and advantage for later career purposes.

The WITS School of Law team, consisting of Ms. Robyn de Jager, Ms. Chey Ramalho, Mr. Shingai Mujeri and Mr. Themba Nyembe, gave an impressive performance which resulted in their qualifying for the International Oral Round in Geneva (ranking third). The team was coached by a member of the 2015/16 Wits School of Law Team, Mr. Mxolisi Ngulube. Moreover, Ms. Robyn de Jager won the prize for best speaker of the play offs.

The three other African Universities that will be represented in Geneva are all from Kenya with the Kenya School of Law finishing in first place.

Moot students 2017Moot 2017 couch