As environmental best practice takes centre stage and both large and small businesses seek to lessen the environmental impact of operations and foster sustainable development, the need for a sound understanding of environmental legislation is becoming increasingly important in South Africa.
In light of this and to encourage law students to specialize in this field, leading Durban law firm Garlicke & Bousfield presented Ayesha Motala, the top environmental law student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) with its prestigious Environmental Law Award for 2012.
Her lecturer, Melissa Lewis, said this was fitting as Motala was also the only student out of a class of 75 to be awarded a certificate of merit for the course. “This was an outstanding achievement in a course which many students found very challenging. She is currently registered as a student in UKZN’s LLM programme in Environmental and Natural Resources Law. I have found her to have a very mature and responsible attitude towards her studies. She is one of the most enthusiastic students in her class and diligently prepares for and participates in class discussions, asserting her opinions in a confident and well-reasoned manner. She has a clear passion for environmental issues and appears to be interested in incorporating this passion into her future legal career.”
Lewis said there was a very real need for other students to follow in Motala’s footsteps. “Environmental Law is moving out of its childhood in South Africa and, instead of the broad brush-strokes of putting principles in place, we are now working with the often more difficult fine detail of implementation and regulation. Also, it is becoming more and more important to have an understanding of international and regional environmental law.”
She added that environmental law was still regarded as a niche area which was why there were still very few specialists in South Africa. However, the fact that many of the larger law firms in South Africa had now established environmental departments, suggested this would change. “Every business needs to have an awareness of applicable environmental statutes with the result that major businesses also employ people as environmental legal advisors and/or environmental legal compliance officers,” she said.
Howard Stephenson of Garlicke & Bousfield Inc. pointed out that environmental issues influenced both infrastructural and private sector development due to the stringent requirements of environmental impact assessments. Companies’ standard operating procedures have to conform to legislation such as the Environment Conservation Act and the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act. “Environmental legislation is constantly evolving and we need professionals who can remain at the forefront of this,” he said.
Lewis said that the Garlicke & Bousfield Environmental Law Award raised the profile of an elective course such as this in the eyes of students and provided additional motivation to those students who were registered for the course to perform at their best. She confirmed that UKZN had seen an increase in the number of students studying in this area in recent years.
“I am deeply grateful to Garlicke & Bousfield for conferring this honour upon me. It is something I am extremely humbled to have received and it is a source of encouragement for me to pursue a career in the environmental field,” said Motala.
She matriculated at Orient Islamic School in Durban in 2007. “As a little girl, I found it very difficult to tolerate injustices that occurred around me. That is why I decided to study law – to provide legal skills to those who need it most. I was able to do this during the fourth year of my LLB by choosing to do clinical law at the UKZN Law Clinic where students are able to interact with less fortunate community members who are in need of legal assistance,” she explains.
A love for the environment was closely aligned with this. “I have been fortunate enough to have travelled across our country, witnessing the beauty of our natural landscape. I have been visiting nature and game reserves since I was young and have been inspired by my father’s love for nature. Being able to experience South Africa’s bountiful biodiversity sparked my interest in environmental law and conservation.”
She admitted that environmental law was still seen as the ‘Cinderella’ of South African law, but remarked that it was developing and attracting attention as an essential area of legal progression.
“Being exposed to nature is fundamental for the development of environmental protection in South Africa. On an international scale, the resources of the world are being exploited and depleted and, in order for this to reduce, the importance of preserving our environment for future generations must be highlighted through every possible avenue,” she said.
Motala intends pursuing a career in environmental law, focusing on either mining or waste management, some of the most controversial and fiercely contended areas of all.