It’s a Jungle Out There

by Ayanda Msibi

Rhodes Law students resort to drastic measures in pursuit of the LLB.

faustin-tuyambaze-135473
Photo credit: Faustin Tuyambaze

Gift Baloyi just woke up. The bedside table lamp is on in her residence room, casting dim light over stacks of notebooks, snacks, clothes and paper. The walls are decorated with motivational quotes and handwritten notes to herself. The logo for leading law firm Adams & Adams Attorneys has pride of place on one wall, printed in black and white. Baloyi’s laptop lies open on her belly, where it was when she fell asleep trying to start tomorrow’s Psychology assignment. She managed to type three lines. Despite fatigue, Baloyi is animated. She really loves to talk about law.

Baloyi has her life mapped out: graduate Legum Baccalaureus as quickly as possible, finish her articles, work in the field for a few years and start a project that empowers low-income and informal workers with knowledge of their rights, become the youngest applicant for public protector, be public protector, and see what happens from there. The university’s reputation is what brought her so far from her Pretoria home. “I heard that the Law at Rhodes is the ‘ish’.” She laughs, but is suddenly serious. “I did my own research as well. I saw that the Law faculty produced quite a great group of lawyers.”

But one does not simply study Law at Rhodes University. You have to beat thousands of potential students to make it in. Present the best grades, and you might be allowed to enrol at one of the country’s best universities, ranked by higher education specialists QS in the top ten in Africa for five years straight. In high school, Baloyi was the archetypal perfect student. She served as head girl of Pretoria High School for Girls and was a winning scholar. She had a booming social life. She played team hockey and the saxophone. Baloyi secured a bursary from top law firm Adams & Adams before she had completed high school, an opportunity usually reserved for second-year university students. Of course, she was accepted.

“I’m so lucky,” she smiles.

Once you’re in, however, you don’t go directly into a Bachelor of Laws degree. Only after a semester of study in another faculty can students apply to the direct LLB stream, provided the Legal Theory course is satisfactorily completed. Baloyi will apply later this year. According to the faculty, the policy “enables students who discover in their first year that they are not suited to a career in law to change their study direction” – which happens often, according to Baloyi. It’s a difficult, high-content course that “a lot of people are dropping.”

‘Satisfactory’ means more than just a pass. Consideration for the direct LLB stream requires a 65 percent average across all courses. In university, 65 can be a lot.“I give most of my attention to Law compared to my other subjects,”  Baloyi says. “I don’t think there are words to describe how competitive the law faculty is.”

Candy Chikwezvero, a third-year Humanities student who hopes to get into the five-year LLB stream next year, has seen the competition first-hand. “At the end of the day, only a handful of you out of [over 200 students] are going to make it into the faculty… I guess the nice thing is that maybe there are 50 people who don’t even want to pursue law careers, or don’t even want to go into LLB, so that’s 50 down but that still leaves you with a hundred and something to compete with.”

At this stage in her studies, Chikwezvero is confident in her academic ability. Still, it’s always about the numbers.

“I feel like they intimidate us,” Chikwezvero says, searching for words to explain. “It’s this whole talk of ‘If you don’t buckle down, you’ll fail. We only want 70 of you’.” Some students feel the need to thin out the competition. “Make sure you really trust your friends,” lecturers have warned Chikwezvero. Not everyone plays by the rules. From sharing sketchy lecture notes to withholding the venues and times of class tests, individuals get fierce.

Before security tightened around the submission of assignments, one desperate student stole an essay and replaced the existing cover page with his own. The student who had written the assignment was accused of non-submission. “It took having to go through the work,” Chikwezvero huffs in disbelief, to figure out what had happened.

In another incident, “This girl gave this guy her assignment to go through. You know – editing. Is it making sense, do you think it’s ok? Next thing the girl knows, she’s being called in for a plagiarism hearing because the guy took her assignment and, almost word for word, wrote exactly what she had written… She didn’t know.”

Another student offered to finish an assignment for a friend, who was “obviously stressing,” Baloyi says. The struggling student submitted the new assignment without checking it. Upon receiving dismal marks, “she actually went and read what this girl wrote. It had nothing to do with Law, basically. This girl took advantage of the other girl knowing that she would not read this. Knowing that she’s under a lot of pressure.”

The competition has an effect on students’ well-being. It causes a huge amount of anxiety over and above the stress of the workload. “It’s a lot,” Chikwezvero admits. “You can find yourself falling into depression or constantly having anxiety… The pressure can get you.” Added to the uncertainty of first year, it can be harrowing. “[My friends] act like the world is crumbling when they don’t get a good mark for Law,” Baloyi says. “Even though we know that it’s not an easy subject, even though we know we’re in university, even though we know that sixty percent is actually great… It hurts.”

Faculty competition, however, mirrors the real world. The law profession itself is competitive. Opportunities are scarce and only the best graduates make it into top firms. Only five candidates are chosen for articles of clerkship at Adams & Adams, and Baloyi is grateful that she has a head-start. She puts pressure on herself because she knows where she is going, a luxury in her faculty. Law students recognise that they are being primed for a cut-throat environment. “At the end of the day we are going to be the people who are in charge of entire legal systems,” Chikwezvero says. “We’re the ones who are going to ensure that  people who are innocent get real, proper time in court.” This requires efficiency and dependability. It also requires integrity.

Studying for a law degree at Rhodes is no mean feat. It demands time, passion and the best work ethic. “I’m determined to be a lawyer,” Baloyi says. “If I don’t like it, I’m going to make sure I like it.” She laughs with a flatness that makes her seem harder than she is. “I want to do it.”

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