Tribute to the Doyen of African Customary Law-Prof Emeritus DS Koyana

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I learnt of the recent demise of the doyen of African Customary Law, Emeritus Professor Digby Sqhelo Koyana, with a great measure of sadness. In so many ways Prof was an extraordinarily gifted and generous human being - a non pareil even.

He was the first black South African to earn the Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree way back in 1974. He then went one further and earned a second LLD. The first was in Customary Law and the second in Criminal Law.

After his long and illustrious career as Professor and Dean of Law at Unitra/WSU, our Faculty had the good fortune of having this venerable evergreen scholar on full-time staff for a few years before he moved on to the Commission for Traditional Leaders Disputes and Claims. In fact even after he left formal employment with UFH, we retained him as one of our adjunct professors.

When Prof Koyana joined the Law faculty at UFH I was the Head of Department: Private Law and had been lecturing African Customary Law for five years or so. However, I readily yielded the teaching of Customary Law to this luminary (although he could have just as easily taught Criminal law or any other subject, for that matter).  In fact I became a kind of "understudy" to him. In time, unless I flatter myself, Prof and I even became friends despite the vast difference in age, expertise and seniority (Prof was that kind of "guy"). On a number of occasions he even invited me to some of the Koyana family gatherings.

In paying tribute to Prof Koyana another colleague during Prof’s time at UFH, Advocate Mike Maseti, in similar fashion put it this way, “Digby has been everything and anything you can imagine that law offers. I knew that I couldn't even tie his shoe laces as a fountain of knowledge in law. But still he would find a way to make you to regard him as just a colleague. In his humble manner he would walk over to my office and ask from me, which I found to be odd, "Setiz what do you think of this ruling?". I would, like any novice, try my damn hardest to shine in the presence of that colossal figure. We got along well. He saw me as a colleague and a fellow member of the Bar.”

Prof and I stayed in touch right through the years and every once in a while I would receive a call or email from the media or law firms seeking expert opinions on a customary law matter of one kind or another. Almost invariably, I would say to them, "How about me giving you someone who will certainly do an even better job on this one?"

His 1980 publication "Customary Law in a Changing Society" remains one of the major go-to texts on indigenous law alongside more recent texts. Prof also continued to publish steadily in this area of law well into retirement. Under Prof Koyana's effervescent teaching South African indigenous law which had for the longest time, even at best, been treated with great condescension when compared to common law pulsated with life and vitality.

I celebrate Prof's life for all this and more. However, this is tinged with sadness. I do not know of a strong cadre of young black South African legal scholars that are showing the same kind of devotion to the scholarship and teaching of African Customary Law. In his time we knew of Koyana and (though younger than him, both are now retired) Mqeke and Nhlapo. The rest of their contemporaries in this field were Kerr, Bekker, De Villiers, Bennett, Rautenbach and so on. Even in this latter group, some are late, retired or very senior and close to retirement. I sincerely hope that I am speaking out of ignorance on this point regarding young black legal scholars in relation to indigenous law and would be very pleased to be corrected.

Heartfelt condolences to the Koyana family.

Rest in Peace Prof…Phumla ngoxolo Zulu, Tshangisa, Skhomo

By Mr Actor Katurura

Deputy Dean and Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law