IFCOL was established in June 1964 by a resolution of the University Council, on the initiative of its first director the late Professor W.A. Joubert. According to its founding constitution, IFCOL's main objective was to serve as a centre for advanced research in foreign and comparative law, public and private international law and international commercial law.
One of the first important tasks of the Institute was to provide the South African contributions to the International Encyclopedia of Comparative Law. During this time, considerable effort was also expended on the establishment of co‑operation with the most important international institutions associated with IFCOL's fields of specialization.
Over time, the Institute expanded its research capacity and matured in research depth under the able directorships of Professors P.E.J. Brooks; M. Wiechers and A.E.A.M Thomashausen (current director).
From its inception, IFCOL undertook basic and applied research that responded to change within, and beyond Southern Africa. Examples during the 1980s included IFCOL's project on Southern African Regional Interaction (1981), responding to the establishment of the (then) Southern Africa Development Co‑ordination Conference (SADCC) in 1980; the project on international economic sanctions which ran from 1985 to 1988 (juxtaposing the imposition of economic sanctions against South Africa for its policy of apartheid; the development of a transitional Constitution for SWA/Namibia in 1986; and research on peaceful resolution and law reform in Mozambique from 1986‑1994). A commissioned research highlight during this time included an assignment to negotiate and draft the Lesotho Highlands Water Project Treaty (1983‑1986) on behalf of the Department of Water Affairs.
The early 1990s were a turbulent phase in South Africa's history during which the Institute continued to produce a steady stream of basic and applied research. Highlights included projects on the International Sale of Goods (1990‑1994), Southern African Economic Integration (1990‑1994), the International Law of Cultural Heritage and the Protection of Cultural Objects (1993‑1995), Private International Law and Offshore‑Joint Ventures (1994‑1995) and Free Ports and Free Trade Zones (1994‑1997).
The new millennium brought new challenges which were also to an extent reflected in the activities and projects undertaken by the Institute. To name but a few, the development of multi-party democracy in Africa (examination of legislation of elections and political parties in Africa as appropriate framework determinants for democracy) and the harmonization and unification of private international law in South Africa.
Foreign investment in Africa has been and continues to be a major determining factor of sustainable development in this region and the recording and analyzing of legal frameworks for foreign investment is a significant research project. The Institute=s database on foreign investment legislation in Sub-Saharan Africa serves as a basis for advice and ongoing academic contribution. Another major issue of the region is the establishment of free trade zones, a project on which legislation has regularly been updated.