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Ph.D. Journeys: The only person who should determine what you can or cannot do is you!

By Cecile Tchoujan


Dr. Tabeth Masengu is the first person to receive a joint Ph.D. — Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Law from the University of Cape Town in South Africa and Ghent University in Belgium. Dr. Masengu overcame numerous challenges throughout her legal career. She was initially inspired by the O. J. Simpson trial to pursue law, and despite the naysayers, she has remained determined. Some of the most astounding achievements of her career span over more than a decade.

In 2006, Dr.Tabeth Masengu graduated Cum Laude from Rhodes University in South Africa and obtained a Bachelor of law. She also was admitted as an attorney of the High Court of South Africa in 2010. She worked in a human rights NGO before obtaining an LLM in Human Rights Law from The London School of Economics and Political Science in 2011. Dr. Masengu was also a Senior Researcher at the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU) at the University of Cape Town in South Africa until July 2019. As a researcher, she pioneered and led the gender arm of judicial governance work at the DGRU. She also led the Women Pioneer Program funded by the Norwegian embassy, which seeks to capacitate and empower women law students and magistrates. Lastly, she served as the Southern African Correspondent for the Oxford University Human Rights Hub.

Cecile Tchoujan (CT) at the Institute for African Women in Law had a chat with Dr.Tabeth Masengu (Dr. M) regarding her legal journey. In revealing a more comprehensive understanding of Dr.Tabeth Masengu’s career and achievements, the Institute hopes to inspire other women in law.

CT: How influential were your resources (i.e., friends, family, professors, etc.) in contributing to your various accomplishments?

DR.M: My resources were extremely influential in contributing to my accomplishments. Firstly, my parents have always encouraged me to strive for more, and my siblings have always been part of my cheerleading squad. I have also been blessed with great mentors− both informal and formal. These have been women on the bench, in academia, and in the legal profession. Women from different walks of life who paved the way for me by achieving great things and encouraged me when I felt exhausted. Finally, my friends have been a constant source of encouragement and prayer, and in my latter life, I have been blessed with a husband who celebrates my successes and spurs me on. I would not have achieved what I have without my resources.

CT: After earning a Master’s degree, you became a researcher at the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit at UCT, where you met your mentor and friend, Professor Caroline Ncube. How did this relationship influence your Ph.D. journey?

DR. M: The mentorship was initially suggested by the UCT Research Office because Professor Ncube, like me, was an African foreigner working in academia. She had some challenges during her own Ph.D. journey but had broken great strides becoming a professor at 40. The relationship with Caroline was crucial as she helped me navigate the bureaucracy of academia both professionally and academically. Despite the difference in our research expertise (Caroline is an intellectual property expert), her guidance through my entire journey was commendable.

CT: You have previously mentioned that there were naysayers who told you that undertaking a straight Bachelor of Law (LLB) at Rhodes University would be too difficult; how were you able to remain determined during that time?

DR. M: I have always been quite determined, and I do not like being told that something is not possible. I also knew the financial burden that was placed on my parents because I undertook studies in South Africa and so completing the degree in the least amount of time was my primary objective. I did not have the luxury of doing a Bachelor’s degree before my LLB.

CT: Of your many achievements, what are the three of which you are most proud of?

DR. M:

  1. Being the first joint doctorate graduate of the University of Cape Town’s Law faculty.

  2. Creating the Women Pioneer Program, which was the first project to bring together women LLB students and judicial officers in order to build opportunities for mentorship and capacity building.

  3. Being selected as a Scientific Expert for the Council of Europe’s (European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice) study on gender diversity in the recruitment and appointment of judges in its member states.

CT: What advice would you give to other young women that aspire to have a career in law?

DR. M: I would encourage them to explore, be eager to learn, and expand their horizons. There are so many opportunities available now that were not there during my time. Paid opportunities to intern at regional courts, fellowships with international NGOs, and opportunities to clerk for judges worldwide. Young women should spread their wings and not be content to stay in their country and legal system. Expanding one’s horizons only makes one a richer and fuller lawyer, and then your contribution to your country is that more impactful. Finally, I would advise them to use the naysayers as their platform to achieve. The only person who should determine what you can or cannot do is you!


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