Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob
Denise Prévost inspired by André van der Walt
She didn’t initially aspire to an academic career, but when Denise Prévost, Associate Professor of International Economic Law, worked with André van der Walt, currently distinguished Professor of Law at Stellenbosch University, she changed her mind.
For Prévost, her position as a research assistant for Van der Walt was a temporary job. “I had just graduated and needed to earn some money while I was applying for jobs. At the time, I thought that an academic career was far removed from everyday problems. I thought professors lived in ivory towers and saw things from a very theoretical and academic perspective.” Van der Walt completely turned that image around. “He showed me how socially relevant research can be. We worked on a comparative project on the constitutional protection of property. The apartheid regime in South Africa had just ended. There was an interim constitution and now the country had to figure out how to redistribute land and deal with restitution claims, while still protecting property rights.”
Van der Walt changed the way Prévost looked at law. “My study programme was quite conservative. During apartheid, law was taught as being 'black or white', there were no grey areas and no room for criticism. He opened my eyes to the power relations underlying the law. Why is a law drafted in a certain way and what societal implications does this have? That made the field so much more interesting.”
Van der Walt took Prévost under his wing. “He inspired me to do a PhD. He is genuinely interested in young academics. He now holds the South African research chair of Property Law, a very prestigious position, but he never stops taking an active interest in young researchers.” It was Van der Walt who introduced Prévost to Maastricht. “He was co-organising a conference here and took me and some other young researchers with him. We had never been to Europe and wouldn’t have been able to afford it. He managed the funding and introduced us to new legal cultures, other countries' understandings of law; it was completely eye-opening.”
Prevost regularly runs into Van der Walt at the annual conference of the Ius Commune research school. “He’s always accompanied by a group of his young researchers. He can really spark someone’s interest. He has great intellectual curiosity and really cares about the social implications of his work. We usually talk for a bit and I meet his new protégées.”
Although Prévost now works in a different field of law (international trade law), she still takes what she has learned from Van der Walt with her. “I’m always conscious of the power relations underlying law and encourage my students to take a critical approach. And I have a great interest in mentoring. I was a mentor in the Premium project (an honours programme for excellent master's students, ed.), coach the WTO moot court team, supervise theses and internships and am always willing to support students in achieving their ambitions. I think having someone to talk to about your interests and career prospects can really make a difference.”