Saturday 31 July 2021

Death of a Lecturer

I wonder if a lecturer like that would be possible today?

I just heard Jan-Louis Serfontein died. He used to insist law was the wrong career for me and that I should have studied politics instead (apparently I argued points in his class more like a Greek than Roman lawyer and that was just not good enough), and used to call me a lee-ahn (lion) due to my long hair and beard during university. He inspired a much deeper love of Roman law and the Civil Law system of continental Europe in me than I had had to date. 

He was always disappointed in me for not living up to my potential, whatever that was. Highly charming as Amy, who I took his class with, points out, and with such a deep love of Western civilisation, medieval Europe, the Renaissance, and the Roman Republic and Empire, that you could imagine him as a magistrate of Justinian rather than of a modern nation. 

I can't speak to him flirting with anyone. I just remember great literature wafting through the place, and his sharp but witty insults aimed at students such as myself, spoken from a position of a deep love of his work. If I ever go to Italy, I might try to see a copy of the Corpus Iuris Civilis he dedicated his life to.

I learnt of his death from a LinkedIn post written by Amy King, whom I attended University of the Witwatersrand Oliver Schreiner School of Law with. She wrote of him:

'Yesterday I learned that a professor from my law school days passed away. While we certainly did not stay in touch after graduation, I feel the need to write an ode of sorts in memory of him – who is one of very few who resembled a character in law I was drawn to.

'Mr Jan-Louis Serfontein was a great big man. So rotund his walk was a sort of roll. He drove a maroon s 600 Mercedes which was befitting of the era he seemed to step out of. Although, really, he was timeless. I even recall an elegant wooden walking cane featuring from time to time. 'I first encountered Mr Serfontein as a nervous first year in the impossibly confusing and oversubscribed class: Foundations of South African Law. 'Keeping abreast with which principles were from Roman, English or Dutch Law and the fact that his classes were on a Friday afternoon and a very early midweek morning, were the trappings of what should have been everyone's worst class. 'It may have been that finding a good seat for his class was near impossible because it had the reputation of the highest failure rate, although I’m quite convinced that it was our dear Mr Serfontein and his charm that got everyone in avid attendance. 'Mr Serfontein would taunt a variety of big boks, intellectual show off’s, and class clowns. He would, mid lecture, flirt shamelessly with beautiful girls by reciting ancient roman stories to them while the rest of us enjoyed the theatre of his story telling. 'Many years later I took his Democracy and Citizenship class, a more intimate setting of maybe 16 students and at last he dedicated a poem to me about a beautiful roman maiden collecting water in an urn who encountered a snake. I can’t for the life of me remember the point of his poem. But I can remember feeling utterly transfixed on almost every word he said, in almost every lecture. 'He did more than teach us law. He taught us about Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, where to holiday in Italy, Confucius (or Kǒng Fūzǐ as he rightly insisted on) and how to contemplate the nature of souls. He called us dummies for paying big brands to advertise their logos on all our clothes and taught us to be outright silly. 'He told us what it’s like to be a magistrate (apparently not recommended) and how he could easily eat foie gras exclusively for the rest of his life without any guilt. 'This man had such a lasting effect on me that I read as many classics as he ever mentioned. I forced my way to the University of Bologna to see for myself the library he insisted every lawyer worth his Legum Baccalaureus would go. 'The thought that such a great big man is no longer breathing this same air doesn’t make him any less alive for me. 'Rest in eternal peace Mr Serfontein, I’m so grateful to have crossed your path.'

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