Zama Mopai is a lecturer at the School of Law in the Faculty of Management, Commerce and Law. She studied both her LLB and LLM (Masters in Law) degrees at the University of Venda. She joined the academic fraternity at the end of 2008 and started lecturing in 2009 where she was assigned amongst other modules to teach Indigenous Law as it was called then, now called Customary Law. As fate would have it, Customary Law has since been her academic trademark, as her name is now mentioned alongside any matter of national interest where customary law is concerned. According to Zama, customary law chose her since it was not her first choice nor area of interest when she was assigned to teach it. There happened to be a shortage of staff in the School of Law, and she ended up having to assist with Customary Law alongside other modules such us Introduction to Law, Foundations of Law, Introduction to Legal Skills and Law of Contract. “I was not keen to teach this module because it didn’t seem to have any career enhancement compared to other common law-based modules. Little did I know that I was on the right path”.
Zama has been involved in different projects related to customary law as a researcher and advisor. Some of the research projects she worked in include the Indigenous Music and Oral History Project at the University of Venda in collaboration with the Department of Arts and Culture between 2006 and 2008 where she was a research assistant on indigenous foods. She was also involved in The Harmful Cultural Practices Research Project under the NRF on Customary Law Chair based at the University of Cape Town under the leadership of Prof Chuma Himonga where she was researching on the male and female traditional initiation rituals in 2014. She has also been involved in several traditional leadership enquiries, including serving as an Ad Hoc Panel member in the enquiry to the existence of Vatsonga Kingship under the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs where she served as a customary law expert advising the Minister and the President on the matter. She has been involved in several traditional leadership succession plans with different royal councils and families, helping them to align their customs for succession with the relevant legal framework regulating traditional leadership.
Apart from traditional leadership, Zama is mostly known for her role as a Customary Law analyst on different national media platforms including TV news channels and radio stations where she tackles and help clarify the legal framework on customary marriages. She has also been featured in some of the leading newspapers such as Mail & Guardian, City Press and Sunday Times, commenting on some of the practices on customary marriages and in particular the process of lobola. She has been chosen as beneficiary for a research fund to run a community engagement research project on customary marriages and succession at the University of Venda under the Community Engagement Directorate.
One of the initiatives that she is currently busy with is to raise awareness on the legal implications of lobola negotiation for customary marriages, in order to help the indigenous community in South Africa on how to facilitate this process to avoid unnecessary legal battles due to ignorance. ‘Many people forget that apart from the festivities involved in the lobola negotiations, there are serious legal implications and obligations that are created. It is therefore important that those tasked with such responsibilities must understand what they are doing and how the law is involved. For instance, many people are not aware that a customary marriage can be valid and effective on just the first sitting of the lobola negotiations, even when lobola has not been given in full. What it takes is for the prospective spouses to be of age, their consent which is often by them allowing their families to sit for lobola negotiations on their behalf, and the agreement on the lobola amount to which a portion must be given towards – and that’s it.’ Zama also teaches on the correct recording of the lobola minutes which will later be used as the ‘lobola letter’. According to her, most families are negligent on how to record their lobola minutes, which has been a source of many unnecessary and expensive legal battles. A lobola letter well drafted can help families understand what happened and what they agreed to. It is in the lobola letter where families leave evidence of the processes they engaged in and can also record their terms and conditions on when the marriage commences which helps in case there are disputes. In addition to that, Zama advises families to have the prospective spouses sign the lobola letter as well since the minutes are about them and their marriage. This is important because customary marriages are in community of property by default and are regarded to be valid even when not registered as long as it can be proven that all requirements have been met.
In the past years, Zama has served as a source of inspiration to upcoming lawyers to specialise in customary law. She has also encouraged many postgraduate students to do their studies under customary law, some of whom went very far in their career because of their expertise in customary law.
Zama is also a community builder who serves as pastor and marriage counsellor. She runs an organisation called ‘MAKOTI INDABA’ where she workshops new brides, seasoned wives and single women on marriage from all angles including the law. She is currently pursuing her doctoral studies with the University of Cape Town, and her thesis is on the dissolution of customary marriages.
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University of Venda
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Date: 31 August 2022