Law PhD at 26 for Gaopalelwe Mathiba – youngest in over a decade

13 July 2023 | Story Kamva Somdyala. Photo Supplied. Voice Cwenga Koyana. Read time 6 min.
Gaopalelwe Mathiba (left, with wife Tshiamo) will become his faculty’s youngest PhD holder in the past 11 years.
Gaopalelwe Mathiba (left, with wife Tshiamo) will become his faculty’s youngest PhD holder in the past 11 years.

University of Cape Town (UCT) senior law lecturer Gaopalelwe Mathiba, 26, will become the youngest person in the Faculty of Law to obtain a PhD when he graduates on Friday, 21 July. Over the past 11 years, there have been only five PhD graduates aged 26 or younger out of a total of 2 583 graduates from UCT.

With his research and teaching interests cutting across property law, mining law, human rights law and comparative law, Gaopalelwe’s thesis is titled “Towards a meaningful engagement approach to mining-induced displacements in South Africa: A legal comparative perspective”. His goal was to devise best industry practices and policies that protect affected communities and is alive to their plight.

Commenting on what drives him, Gaopalelwe said: “I am a man of faith and give God glory for everything I have accomplished and everything I am yet to accomplish. Apart from my career, I am a family-oriented young man.”

Gaopalelwe is married to Tshiamo, and they are blessed with one daughter, Warona.

He said: “I would like to dedicate this top academic achievement to my late mother, Dibakatsatsi, who passed away when I was just six years old. She believed strongly in education. It is unfortunate that she is not here to witness this moment.

“I would also like to dedicate this PhD to my wife, Tshiamo Mathiba, and my daughter, Warona Mathiba. What makes this achievement most remarkable is the fact that the final consolidation and submission of my thesis for examination coincided with the birth of my daughter.”

Kamva Somdyala (KS): What inspired your research topic?

Gaopalelwe Mathiba (GM): Development mega-projects, especially mining operations, are major hotbeds for numerous human rights violations across the world. Where mining operations are anticipated, displacements and large-scale evictions are most likely to occur, to make way for operations. I observe in my study that these developments often target the poor and remote indigenous communities.

KS: What has your journey to becoming a senior lecturer been like?

GM: I matriculated in 2014 and obtained my LLB from North-West University (NWU) in 2018. In 2019, I enrolled and completed my LLM (with distinction) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). I enrolled for my PhD in Law at UCT in 2020.

During my PhD, I worked at three different universities in different capacities at varying times, and I got the opportunity to meet, interact, share, and learn from colleagues.

Between late 2020 and early 2022, I was appointed as a lecturer in the law faculty at Rhodes University. In the second quarter of 2022 I joined the University of South Africa College of Law as a lecturer. At the point of completing my PhD, I had returned to UCT as a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law.

That said, my career in academia is still in its infancy, stretching across a period of almost four years. I think that my high research output record is what warranted my appointment at senior lecturer rank – apart from the expertise, qualifications and teaching experience.


“The early exposure to legal research unleashed the academic and researcher in me.”

KS: Obtaining a PhD at 26 is remarkable; what influenced your decision to study all the way to PhD level?

GM: I developed a love for academic writing during my time as an undergraduate law student at NWU.

Among the key highlights was when I published my first scientific paper during my final year of LLB; and as early as my second year, when I provided research assistance to the NWU’s Prof Samuelson Khunou, who was deposing a series of expert affidavits for the Maluleke Commission of Inquiry that was established to investigate traditional succession disputes and claims around the Bakgatla Ba Kgafela, Batlhako Ba Leema and Bapo I & II communities in the North West.

The early exposure to legal research at that level of intensity unleashed the academic and researcher in me.

KS: How are you celebrating the occasion?

GM: A close and intimate celebration and thanksgiving luncheon with family and close loved ones is on the cards.

KS: How would you motivate young people to also reach for the same heights?

GM: Be disciplined! Strive to chart and decorate your own path; set your own targets and commit to your goals. Once this is in order, everything else (for example, life progression, career trajectory, grades) will just come into alignment.

Further, I know every young person has already been advised to study and work hard, manage their time effectively, be healthy, and prioritise their dreams and studies; however, I believe there is great utility in taking joy in lifelong learning – not only in your chosen field of study, but in every aspect of your life.

KS: Does being a young senior lecturer put pressure on you in the work you do?

GM: Not really. Loving and enjoying what you do and get paid for is what lessens the pressure. At no given point have I ever felt like I am extremely deluged with my work or felt the inherent pressure that comes along with the responsibilities of the rank at which I am appointed.

KS: How did you manage to combine PhD work and family life?

GM: What I have noticed is that when you are busy with a PhD alongside other commitments, the PhD is always the most convenient commitment to be surrendered in favour of the others. Should I have allowed this to happen, I would not have my PhD now. Again, it was about discipline.

My family was very understanding when I was not always reachable and available due to my studies. The support and understanding of my wife also came in very handy in ensuring that I never lost my grip on this PhD.

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