In 1974, the bright young Penelope Andrews was told that she should become a secretary. In 1984, she received her Master of Law Degree from Columbia University in New York and in 2016, Professor Andrews became the first person of colour to become a Dean at the University of Cape Town.
Penelope, or “Penny” as she likes to be called, grew up in Cape Town in a community she remembers as being a “poor, working class Coloured community”. One of her biggest challenges as a young girl was the sudden loss of her mother when she was just 13-years-old. To make matters worse, when her mother passed on, Penny and her three siblings were separated from each other. Penny remembers her mother as being hard-working and dedicated, a single parent who worked tirelessly at a local grocery store during the week, and then spent her weekends making dresses to sell, so that she could support the family. She says that one of the greatest gifts her mother could leave her, which made an incredible impact on her life, was her mother’s appreciation for education
Penny was taught by nuns at her high school and says that they were loving role-models who helped shape and guide her as she grew up. After completing high school, Penelope was awarded a scholarship to study her Undergraduate Degree. She studied at the University of Natal (Durban), where she completed her Bachelor of Arts in 1980. Although she was bright and forward-thinking, she was told she was better suited as a secretary; this was not uncommon because persons of colour weren’t given many opportunities under the Apartheid-government. Despite this advice, it was her time spent working part-time at a legal-aid clinic that ushered her towards a career in law. By seeing the daily struggles of people who were discriminated against by the Apartheid-government, Penny decided she wanted to become a lawyer so that she could help those who desperately needed it.
Penny completed her Undergraduate Law Degree in 1982 and soon after, she left South Africa to attend Columbia Law School in the USA, where she received her Masters of Law. Penelope was resilient and hard-working, spending most of her time studying. She prioritised her education and it clearly paid off. She recalls her days in New York, where she studied towards her Masters, as being one of the greatest experiences of her life. As a young person in New York, “it felt like heaven” to her, but she knew her greater purpose: which was to make a difference in people’s lives.
Penny has extensive international experience with legal issues of racial and gender equality, international human rights and criminal law. Throughout her career, Andrews has taught at law schools in South Africa, as well as abroad and has made an impact both locally and internationally. Her teaching career started more than 20 years ago, at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. She then went on to become the first female President and Dean at Albany Law School in New York, as well as serving as a Professor of Law and Director of International Studies at Valparaiso Law School in Indiana, USA. She has taught law in France, Canada, Germany, Australia, Holland, Scotland, Canada and of course, in her home town, South Africa.
Penny has received many awards throughout her career. These include the Peter Pryor Pioneer Award from the Capital District Black and Hispanic Bar Association (2015); the Excellence in Leadership Award from the Flora E. Kippins Foundation (2014); the Women Who Mean Business Award from the Business Review (2013); the Haywood Burns/Shanara Gilbert Award from the Northeast People of Color Conference in Boston (2012); the Scholar in Residence award from the Rockefeller Conference and Study Center in Bellagio, Italy (2004) and the Kate Stoneman Award from th Albany Law School (2002).
In addition, the South African Law School of the University of KwaZulu-Natal hands out an annual award in her name—The Penelope E. Andrews Human Rights Award—; and she was the Albany Common Council ‘s 2014 African-American History Month Celebration Honoree. She has also been listed as one of the 100 Most Influential Black Attorneys in the United States from 2010 to 2015.
She is also the author of 4 books and has published over 50 articles in respected peer reviewed journals.
In 2015, she was offered the job of Dean of Law at the University of Cape Town. Although she enjoyed her Presidency at Albany Law School, she longed for home and accepted the offer, returning to South Africa in 2016. In her capacity as Dean, she made good on her promise of helping those in need through several of her initiatives such as the Dikgang Moseneke Fellowships, the Housing Law Clinic, increasing UCT Law’s Named Student Bursaries, and the distinguished visitors’ symposiums hosting, Justice Dikgang Moseneke and Dame Linda Dobbs. Penny’s commitment and dedication to giving back and uplifting people who were previously disadvantaged and discriminated against, does not go unnoticed
Always on a mission to improve the lives of others through law, Prof. Penelope Andrews has resigned this year, to pursue several opportunities that will focus on the explorations of issues regarding constitutionalism, race and transformation. Apart from this exciting new adventure, she wishes to be able to focus on her research and engage in teaching. Although her role as Dean of Law was rewarding, it was also demanding, so she never had the time to pursue these desires. She will step down as Dean in December 2018, but, as she has already accepted the offer of a fellowship at the Centre for the Study of Law and Culture at Columbia University, where she will also be completing a joint project with the center on the comparative legal education.
Penny’s colleagues refer to her as a strong woman with integrity and loyalty, whose service to the community knows no bounds. She on the other hand, sees herself as quite the comedian, saying that she uses humor to ward off bad moods and difficult situations. She says that had she not been a lawyer, she would have taken center stage as a comedian. She is also a bit of free spirit. She says that had it not been for an unplanned trip to KZN with her boyfriend on his motorcycle, she might not have become a lawyer, but that’s a story for another time.
Professor Penelope Andrews advice to young people, particularly those like herself with a desire to change things, is to move around. “I don’t think a young person starting out should confine themselves to a particular area or region,” she says. Your effort and desire to change things can make a great impact on society and even the world, so never think that your efforts are too small—sometimes it’s your tiny pebble that makes huge ripples in the ocean.