Graduating with a PhD in Law is not the only feather in Dr Bonginkosi Shozi’s cap as the 25-year-old recently made history as the youngest author in the 40-year history of the Law of South Africa (Lawsa).
Shozi has also published 12 peer-reviewed articles, seven of them based on his PhD thesis.
‘During my studies for my LLM in Constitutional Law, Theory, and Human Rights Litigation, I fell in love with the process of researching the legal implications of cutting-edge technologies, and knew then that I wanted to work towards a career in academia looking at these kinds of issues,’ said Shozi.
This academic curiosity led Shozi to health law and bioethics as a School of Law doctoral fellow with the African Health Research Flagship at UKZN.
His PhD thesis titled: An Afrocentric Approach to CRISPR-Cas9: Analysing the Use of Genetic Technologies in Human Reproduction through the Lens of Human Rights and African Values, investigates critical legal, ethical and human rights issues emanating from the prospect of germline gene editing using the novel CRISPR technology. The study was supervised by Professor Donrich Thaldar.
‘Somewhere in the middle of doing my LLM thesis on legal and human rights issues in posthumous human reproduction, I came across the topic of gene editing. When the opportunity to do a PhD on the topic came up, I jumped at it,’ said Shozi.
He added that the research comprised a legal and ethical analysis of germline genome editing from a South African perspective and focused on legal questions such as ‘is it legal?’ and ‘does it violate human rights?’ within the South African context.
‘In simple terms, the research focused on the possibility of using novel biotechnology CRISPR-Cas9 to “edit” the human genome in gametes and embryos, with the goal of ensuring future generations don’t have certain genes – such as genes that cause diseases, or do have certain genes – like genes that make them resistant to serious infectious diseases,’ said Shozi.
‘Since the advent of CRISPR-Cas9 in about 2012, gene editing has been something on the horizon, but of course, whether we can (or should) use this technology raises a number of questions. It also considered ethical questions from the perspective of African philosophy, which was important because discourse on the ethics of new technology is often dominated by Western philosophical perspectives.’
Shozi’s list of achievements include being a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute for Practical Ethics at the University California in San Diego, as well as an Honorary Research Fellow at UKZN’s School of Law.
His article: Something Old, Something New: Applying Reproductive Rights to New Reproductive Technologies in South Africa, was published in the South African Journal of Human Rights and won the 2021 Yunus Mohammed Public Interest Award, which is made annually for one article authored in each of the four top universities in South Africa. Shozi’s article also won the national award for the best publications in a peer-reviewed journal in 2021.
In recognition of his leading work on the law and ethics on gene editing in South Africa, Shozi was invited to be the first author of an article for the Association for Responsible Research and Innovation in Genome Editing (ARRIGE) in the first-ever issue of their newsletter published in May 2020. In the same month, he was invited as the first-ever guest contributor to the Multilateral Matters blog, authored by renowned intellectual property scholar, Professor Wend Wendland, who requested Shozi to write a piece titled: What Can African Countries Do To Make Sure They Have Affordable Access to a COVID-19 Cure?
In recognition of his contributions to the literature on the law and ethics of gene editing, Shozi has recently been elected to the board of ARRIGE as a Non-Executive Board Member. He is the youngest and first Black member of the board.
Shozi has also written opinion pieces for The Conversation, The Daily Maverick, and The Mail & Guardian, and has been interviewed about his work twice on SAfm, and on Radio Khwezi.
The complexities associated with this research area which involved months of Shozi mostly undertaking self-teaching philosophy and ethics in order to tackle some of the complex problems raised by gene editing, meant that he could not pursue his studies and practice law at the same time. Fortunately, Shozi was able to obtain two fellowships to fund his research.
‘A PhD in Law is an exceptionally difficult thing to do,’ he said. ‘Many start, few finish. My experience was that for the duration of my PhD it consumed my life the way a full-time job would, and so the only way I was able to make it through was to treat it like one. However, this funding came with significant responsibilities such as ensuring the projects my research was a part of were a success. On top of this, I also did part-time work as a Research Assistant. All this meant I spent a lot of time working on research that was outside the scope of my PhD, and balancing all of this was at times a challenge,’ he said.
With a promising future in academia, Shozi plans to share his newly acquired qualification as a launch pad for his research career.
‘A PhD is a worthwhile qualification for anyone who wants to make a career in legal academia primarily because it gives you an opportunity to really entrench yourself in a subject matter and develop expertise. The fact that I took on co-supervision of a master’s student in my second-year also added to my workload, but seeing them graduate earlier this year made all those extra hours worth it. So much so that I undertook co-supervision of two more master’s students who are on course to graduate next year,’ added Shozi.
Words: Thandiwe Jumo