Dr Joel Modiri

AfOx Law Fellow 2019

Picture of Dr Joel Modiri

A brief biography of yourself and a summary of your career so far 

I am currently a Senior Lecturer and Acting Head of Department in the Department of Jurisprudence at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. I have been promoted to the position of Associate Professor in Jurisprudence effective 1 January 2021. I hold the degrees LLB (2013) and PhD (2018) from the University of Pretoria (UP). I mainly teach legal philosophy and advanced themes in legal, social and political theory at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Some major career achievements:

  • I had my first accredited academic publication in 2011 as a second-year law student (and to-date I have close to 20 publications).
  • I won the Best Lecturer Award for First years from 2016 – 2018 at the University of Pretoria, Faculty of Law.
  • I have held three fellowships (Wits Center for Applied Legal Studies; University of Oxford UK; University of Columbia, NY).
  • Awarded JUTA Prize for Best Legal Education Paper: Southern African Law Teachers Association (2018).
  • Twice cited in South African Constitutional Court judgements (Afriforum v UFS; Tshabala v S…).
  • Cited in three student textbooks (Sociology: A SA Perspective; Beginner’s Guide for Law Students and Jurisprudence in an African Context) and one advanced international research handbook (Research Handbook on Critical Legal Theory) as the main authority on critical race theory (CRT) in the South African legal context.
  • Interviewed by New York Times and American broadcasting Corporation (on racial discrimination and hate speech in South Africa).
  • Member: Section 11 Committee on Equality, South African Human Rights Commission (2018 - present).
  • Invited Speaker: 17th session of United Nations Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) (16-20 December 2019, Geneva, Switzerland).
  • Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans 2018 (Justice and Law).
  • AVANCE Media 100 Most Influential Young South Africans 2019.

What attracted you to a career in Law? 

My interests in academic scholarship and life of the mind were sparked by the paradoxically enabling environment in which I studied at UP between 2010 - 2013. The Department of Jurisprudence (where I now work) was at the time a vibrant and leading space for critical legal theory, which was a way of thinking about and legal theory from a more socially and politically engaged perspective, bringing political philosophy, social identities, literature and aesthetics into the study of law. My academic mentors introduced me to this literature and guided me in the early stages of my career.

Tell us a bit about your research. What are you working on at the moment and why is it important to you? 

My research is in the area of critical race theory, black political thought, and critical legal pedagogy. I am currently working on several projects. The first is on Black Consciousness and post-1994 South African jurisprudence and the second is on an alternative paradigm of constitutionalism derived from African history and philosophy (generally theorised as "constitutional abolitionism"). In both cases, the focus of my research is on theorising from the standpoint of Africanist and black radical intellectual traditions developed on the continent and in the diaspora.

What has been the biggest challenge in your career to date? 

The usual challenges scholars face (work-life balance; imposter syndrome; neoliberalisation of the university) aggravated and contoured by the realities of living in historically racist societies. Building a caring and rigorous academic community of fellow scholars has been the central antidote to these challenging conditions.

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be? 

Seek intellectual stimulation and resist the pressure to truncate your education in pursuit of a high-paying job and conformity to the norms of the Market and State. Instead, use your time to discover the histories, literature, knowledge, languages, cultures and discourses that have made and unmade the world. In a word: approach your studies with an ethic of public-spiritedness. Learn about and involve yourself in the struggles of the marginalised groups and communities, be an active citizen and use your knowledge, training and skills in the service of humane and just causes.

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