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New Chair in Urban Law and Sustainability Governance set to make a big impact at SU
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing (Hannelie Booyens)
Published: 28/02/2024

​​During a time of unprecedented global climate change and urbanisation on the African continent, Stellenbosch University's (SU) Faculty of Law is set to embark on a trajectory of urban law and sustainability governance research and scholarship.

With the newly established chair in Urban Law and Sustainability Governance, SU aims to contribute constructively towards the legal drivers for sustainability governance in cities and towns and the various systems supporting urban life.

The Chair was established in 2023 and this month it welcomed its first cohort of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers. Collectively these researchers aim to explore the legal relationships, tensions and opportunities that are emerging because of our expanding formal and informal urban landscapes, explains Prof Anél du Plessis, inaugural Chair in Urban Law and Sustainability Governance at SU.

“Mounting service delivery and public health challenges, burgeoning environmental pressures on urban infrastructure and livelihoods, as well as human and ecosystem vulnerabilities intensified by urban poverty, an unreliable economy, acute housing shortages and climate change are pressing issues impacting all our lives," Du Plessis says. 

“It is an exciting time to be doing research in this field. The hybrid legal subject field of 'urban law' is of recent origins and more and more courts globally are confronted with climate litigation, the aftermath of natural disasters and human rights violations related to the state of living, insufficient mobility, and the sharing of resources in dense urban environments."

Legal questions around safety, security and privacy also emerge as increasingly local governments turn to technology, information and communication technology and different forms of e-governance and surveillance. South Africa's energy, waste, and water crises in combination with the fact that its economy is heavily reliant on coal, are equally relevant for urban law and sustainability in the country, Du Plessis stresses.

“In South Africa, we are transitioning very fast to alternative sources of energy, which is great, but it can also be a big divider. Many people can't afford to go off the grid," she says. “There is a lot of emphasis on climate justice globally, which is all about being fair, but in South Africa the biggest challenge is structural poverty. Before we're not out of structural poverty, we can't start talking about being climate resilient and having adaptive capacity."

Trends in urban law

“Oftentimes, we think that it's the task of the national government to involve itself in aspects such as water quality, equality, biodiversity management and protection and sustainable development. In reality, our municipalities have a great scope in terms of making an environmental impact and improving the well-being and living conditions of people in urban areas."

In many towns and cities in South Africa there is ongoing litigation against municipalities regarding service delivery issues, as well as cases of authorities instituting legal action against non-paying citizens.

 “The service delivery protests are something we're familiar with. We've also seen an increase in civil disobedience where people refuse to pay when services are not delivered adequately. People are asking why they should pay for water when it's not regularly provided or when access to electricity is not consistent. There are many legal issues at play when authorities don't deliver on their constitutional duty to provide an environment that's not detrimental to citizens' health and well-being. The state must respect, protect, promote, and fulfil this right, which also encompasses the duty to protect and conserve the environment.

“Another legal dimension that comes into play is when community organisations step up and take over certain aspects of service delivery, for example fixing potholes. The question then arises what if something goes wrong? Who is liable then? There is a lot of work for practitioners in this field of law," Du Plessis emphasises.

At the international level, the relevance of the field of urban law is underscored by Goal 11 of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals which aims to see cities all over the world attaining a state of sustainability, safety, inclusivity, and resilience by 2030.

There has been an interesting shift in international law from a focus on states as major actors to cities as autonomous regulators of the interests and rights of their residents, Du Plessis notes. “This trend is going to become even more important considering all the conflict and strife we have in the world, including in parts of Africa, at the moment."

Du Plessis has been lecturing and researching international, African regional, and domestic environmental and local government law for the past 21 years. She is an accomplished researcher and supervisor with a significant number of doctoral and master's students having completed their studies under her supervision over the past decade. Before she joined SU, Du Plessis served as the incumbent of the NRF SARChi Chair in Cities, Law and Environmental Sustainability at the Faculty of Law, North-West University in Potchefstroom.

Big plans for 2024

The Chair has an exciting agenda for 2024, Du Plessis says. It started on 26 January when the Chair and UN-Habitat hosted an “Urban Law Day" in Stellenbosch. The programme focused on urban law litigation and the role of the courts in pushing the legal frontiers for city-level transition and sustainability.

The Urban Law Day was funded by the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation Regional Programme Energy Security and Climate Change in Sub-Saharan Africa. The event was well-attended by urban law scholars from South Africa, Brazil, Columbia, Kenya, Malawi, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. The Chair has also recently developed the first-ever urban law LLM module, that will be offered by SU's Faculty of Law in 2025.

The remainder of this year will see a national urban law postgraduate student colloquium, a high-level public lecture hosted by the Chair as well as Du Plessis' inaugural lecture on 16 May.

PHOTO: Prof  Anél​ du Plessis and the first cohort of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers.

(Photo by Stefan Els)