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Sonya Cotton

Sonya Cotton (ERC project PROPERTY[IN]JUSTICE)


Supervisor(s): Amy Strecker 

Thesis Title: Pluralising property: Land, legal pluralism and foreign investments in Southern Africa


In the context of de facto pluralism, African states widely recognise the jurisdiction and legal validity of non-codified customary laws, often on the basis of equality with state laws inherited from colonialism. With an emphasis on Anglophone members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), this research considers the tension whereby African states dually affirm pluralism whilst participating in the standardising dynamics of international commerce. This PhD considers whether state recognition of pluralism amounts to spatial justice for dispossessed communities in the context of conflicts with private or state investors. Using comparative and doctrinal methodologies, it firstly examines the extent to which there is scope for substantive pluralism in national and international definitions of property to accommodate interconnected relations between communities and land. It secondly adopts sociolegal approaches, including fieldwork and interviews, to qualitatively explore case studies of land disputes within Anglophone SADC countries. Case studies range from highly publicised legal disputes, such as Baleni v Minister of Mineral Resources at the High Court of Pretoria, South Africa, to conflicts that were not approached through the formal justice system. Finally, using discourse analysis, this research explores the implications of rhetorical shifts in land disputes involving international versus domestic respondents for the performed identities of post-colonial African states within an international legal framework. In attempting to bring pluralism into conversation with investment, this research contributes to scholarship on comparative law in Africa, international law and human rights. It furthermore seeks to critically re-assess the relationship between states, communities and international investors, and forefront spatial justice as a normative outcome for property and investment laws.


Sonya is a PhD candidate at the Sutherland School of Law, University College Dublin (UCD), for the ERC project PROPERTY[IN]JUSTICE, which examines how international law facilitates spatial (in)justice through its conceptualization of property rights. Her research examines the dynamics of international investments in Southern African countries that not only recognize non-codified customary laws, often on the basis of equality with state law, but to various extents are committed to policies of decolonisation and land restitution.

She is an interdisciplinary socio-legal scholar with a Master of Laws in Chinese law and society from Peking University, a Master of Philosophy in Comparative Law in Africa from the University of Cape Town (UCT), and undergraduate training in linguistics and Xhosa from UCT. 

She is a research fellow at the Centre for Legal Integration in Africa at the University of the Western Cape and was a Yenching Academy Fellow at Peking University (2017-2019). In 2018, she was one of ten to be selected to present at the 11th International Junior Faculty Forum at Stanford University on her research on comparative family law in sub-Saharan Africa. She has further worked as a research assistant at the Refugee Rights Unit, UCT and as a research assistant at the Centre for Comparative Law in Africa, UCT, where she also lectured a graduate course on Chinese investments in Africa. She was also a UN Program intern at Outright Action International, which advocates for the promotion of LGBTQI human rights at the UN and internationally. 

Her academic publications are:

Diala, Anthony & Cotton, Sonya. 2020. Chained communities: A critique of South Africa’s approach to land restitution. African Studies Quarterly (forthcoming)

Cotton, Sonya., 2020. Do Equality and Non-discrimination Apply to Polygamous African Customary Marriages? A Constitutional and Statutory Analysis of 14 African Commonwealth States. Global Journal of Comparative Law, 9(1), pp.87-116.

Cotton, Sonya. and Diala, Anthony, 2018. Silences in Marriage Laws in Commonwealth Africa: Women's Position in Polygynous Customary Marriages. (2018) Speculum Juris vol 32 (1) pp. 18-32, Available: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3376340 

UCD Sutherland School of Law

University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.