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8 October 2021
UWC bids a fond farewell to doyenne of children's rights, Professor Julia Sloth-Nielsen
Professor Julia Sloth-Nielsen is a formidable academic, respected globally for her work on the development of children’s rights, particularly in Africa. With her razor-sharp wit and indomitable spirit, she has also been a tour de force in the University of the Western Cape’s Law Faculty for almost three decades.

We sat down with Prof. Sloth-Nielsen, UWC’s first woman A-rated researcher, while she was packing to leave for the United Kingdom, bringing to a close her 27-year-long career at the university. She admitted to feeling “quite stressed” about the move, but Prof. Sloth-Nielsen is not one to scare easily. In her work as a children’s rights activist and scholar she has done everything from searching for mountains in the dark, using only a torch, while flying in a military helicopter in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to donning size 13 boots in South Sudan. And throughout it all she also raised three children and mentored more than a hundred doctoral and master’s students, many of whom have gone on to occupy positions on various benches around the country and in leading law firms. 

Prof. Sloth-Nielsen admitted that she knew nothing about children’s rights and the law when she registered to study at the University of Stellenbosch as a first-year student. In fact, she was planning on studying music, following in the footsteps of her mother, now in her nineties, who still teaches. It was only while standing in the music queue at registration that she noticed the adjacent queue for a law degree was filled with boys. Realising that there were mainly women considering a music degree, she immediately switched to law. In retrospect, this change of direction was not that unexpected, as Prof. Sloth-Nielsen had some experience of legal concepts from working with her father at a publisher of legal texts. 

Prof. Sloth-Nielsen went on to prosecute before joining her alma mater as a lecturer. She also lectured at the University of the Western Cape. When she started a family, she took a break from academia and taught part-time. On 17 April 1994 - a significant year in South Africa’s history - she received a call from Professor Nico Steytler inviting her to join UWC’s Dullah Omar Institute (formerly the Community Law Centre), as many of the academics had been seconded to be ministers in Nelson Mandela’s first democratic cabinet. She agreed, but asked for a few days’ grace so she could have her third baby. Prof. Sloth-Nielsen joined UWC a week after her baby was born. 

It was a “baptism of fire”, she recalled. “I learned about children’s rights very quickly and it soon became my leitmotif for the rest of my life. I could not have chosen a more exciting academic path.” She said that by joining in 1994, at the start of South Africa’s democracy, she was able to come in “on the ground” and make a significant contribution to the recognition of children’s rights as universal human rights. “It is a very exciting field because it covers all aspects of human endeavours.” 

The Minister of Justice, Dullah Omar, appointed her to the South African Law Reform Commission where she was involved in drafting the Children’s Act and the Child Justice Act. In 2007, she was awarded the contract to draft regulations for the South African Children’s Act. “I’m very proud of it,” she beamed, while showing us the hefty 700-odd page tome that has changed the lives of so many children and families. She has contributed to child law reform with UNICEF in many southern and eastern African countries, and published extensively on child and family law issues. Areas of focus include customary family law, child-headed households and juvenile justice. Prof. Sloth-Nielsen was a member of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child between 2011 and 2016. She teaches the world’s only master’s programme on children’s rights at the University of Leiden where she is the chair of Children’s Rights in the Developing World. 

View part one of the interview with Prof. Sloth-Nielsen:

Looking back over her 27-year journey with UWC, Prof. Sloth-Nielsen said she had witnessed much change within the Law Faculty and the university itself, and she’s not just referring to the refurbishments she championed in the moot court and communal kitchen. “Everything has changed. The university’s leadership is in a good place, steering (the institution) in the right direction.” Once viewed as a teaching university, UWC is now being recognised as a research-led university, she said. “To be a player in the academic field, you need to be able to do research,” she said, adding that it became the focus of her term as Dean of Law from 2009 to 2013. UWC’s LLB course now includes a compulsory research paper. “This changed the whole culture of the faculty, and I am quite proud of my time as Dean. It was not just about renovating the building,” she added with her distinctive chuckle. 

Prof. Sloth-Nielsen also recalled how student numbers swelled when the Department of Higher Education and Training demanded that UWC expand its student body to remain relevant. This happened in 2000 when there were proposals to merge UWC with the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Cape Town. “We went from 10 000 to 25 000 students with no extra staff. This placed considerable strain on teaching staff who suddenly found themselves lecturing to classes of 600 students.” But she added that losing a “cultural icon and university of the struggle” to a merger would have been far worse. Fortunately, UWC did gain additional faculties, including Nursing and Dentistry, during consultations about the proposed merger. Over time, UWC has graduated from being seen as a “coloured” institution, to use a “racial term”, to an academic institution of considerable repute, she commented. 

View part 2 of the interview with Prof. Sloth-Nielsen:

Prof. Sloth-Nielsen has played a pivotal role in cementing UWC’s global position as a leading research institution. She is the university’s first woman A-rated researcher, and the only one from the Law Faculty. What makes this grading even more remarkable, is that it is in recognition of her work on children’s rights. Granted at the end of 2020, this grading came almost 30 years after Prof. Sloth-Nielsen first stood in that queue for a law degree. It’s an indication of just how difficult it is for woman academics to be recognised for their work, she explained. Many struggle with the “double burden” of being mothers and professionals. Prof. Sloth-Nielsen is open about the challenges of being a mother and leading academic and children’s rights activist, especially when her children were young. She shared a moment when her daughter told people that she was in fact the head of a child-headed household, as her mother was away so often. It wasn’t all for nought though, as this daughter is now completing her doctorate in law at Oxford. 

Prof. Sloth-Nielsen struggled to summarise the highlights of a career that has taken her all over the world, lecturing students or meeting with diverse communities. But she did reveal her delight when she encountered a UWC alumnus while doing work at a refugee camp in South Sudan. Laughing, she added that she was also surprised to hear the helicopter pilots on that flight speak Afrikaans. She added that she is proud of her contribution to child law reform in countries such as Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, as well as the success of the students she has supervised over the years. Professor Benyam Mezmur, one of her former doctoral students, is now Deputy Dean of UWC’s Law Faculty.

While Prof. Sloth-Nielsen may be leaving UWC, there is still plenty to be done in the field of children’s rights. The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges, especially in southern Africa where there is scant research on the impact of the pandemic on children. For now, however, Prof. Sloth-Nielsen is looking forward to teaching undergraduates and mentoring staff at the University of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, England, where she will share the insight and expansive knowledge that has made her one of UWC’s leading academics.