Where do we draw the line between secular and sacred? The Inaugural Lecture of Professor Helena van Coller

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Rhodes University Law academic Professor Helena van Coller, giving her inaugural lecture
Rhodes University Law academic Professor Helena van Coller, giving her inaugural lecture

By Dana Osborn

As per its time-honoured tradition, Rhodes University held the inaugural lecture of Professor Helena van Coller on 26 April 2022, after she received her status as a full professor. Inaugural lectures serve as a recognition and celebration of induction and a platform for professors to showcase their scholarly contributions to their field.

Professor van Coller’s lecture was titled ‘Secular versus Sacred: Regulation Religion in South Africa’ and was held in person in Eden Grove and on Zoom, allowing virtual guests to attend the lecture. Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sizwe Mabizela, opened the evening by welcoming the guests. When introducing Professor van Coller, Professor Mabizela said: “On behalf of our University community, I offer our heartfelt congratulations to you, Professor van Coller, for your promotion to the rank of full professor and for reaching the pinnacle of your career in the academy.”

Professor van Coller obtained cum laude for her LLB degree in 2001 and her LLM degree in 2003 from the University of the Free State. During the same period, she completed the attorney’s admissions examinations and attended the school for legal practice in the Free State. In 2004, Professor van Coller was admitted as an advocate of the High Court. In 2005, she obtained another LLM, summa cum laude, focusing on comparative Public Law and good governance at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. In 2008, she completed a Master’s degree in Governance and Political Transformation, cum laude, at the University of the Free State and a Postgraduate Diploma in Higher education at Rhodes University.

In 2012, she graduated with an LLD in Administrative Law and Religious Organisations from the University of Johannesburg. Professor van Coller is a member of ICLARS (The International Consortium for Law and Religious Studies), Member of the Board of Directors of ACLARS (The African Consortium for Law and Religious Studies), The SA Council for the Protection and Promotion of Religious Rights and Freedoms (founding member) and Council member of ‘Die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns’. She has published over 24 journal articles, textbook chapters and one monograph, among other achievements.

In her opening, Professor van Coller jokingly stated, “After the last two years of COVID-19, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous presenting in person.” She extended a special thanks to her parents: “I am very privileged, dankie Ma en Pa.” Professor van Coller was born in Pietermaritzburg, where she grew up in “a loving and supportive family of educators.”

The lecture posed, “Where do we draw the line between secular and sacred?”

Professor utilised examples such as the Krugersdorp serial murders and Pastor Lethebo Rabalago, who sprayed Doom (insect poison) on his congregation, to demonstrate the need to regulate religious institutions to protect citizens from abuse. Professor van Coller also highlighted the importance of protecting citizens’ rights to religious freedom and fostering tolerance and acceptance for the diversity of religions in South Africa. Highlighting how imperative it is that governments find the balance between protecting the rights of both religious institutions and citizens, Professor van Coller argued that implementing more legislation on religious institutions is not the answer, as there are substantial regulations in place already.

Instead, she advised, efforts should be made to implement these policies by educating institutions and citizens about their rights, the limits to those rights and the avenues to take if they feel those rights have been violated.

Professor van Coller argued that although a tolerant, even-handed and accommodating approach to religious rights and convictions is necessary, she also stressed that “our constitutional court has highlighted the important fact the religious leaders will not automatically be exempted from the laws of the land due to their religious beliefs. However, the state should, wherever possible, seek to avoid putting believers through extremely painful and intensely burdensome choices of either being true to their faith or respectful of the law.”

Source:  Communications