First appointed as judge: 02 December 2013 (Johannesburg)
Further appointments: 2017 (Seconded to Mpumalanga) June 2021 (DJP Mpumalanga)
Date of Birth: August 1968
Qualifications: B. Proc (1991), LLB (1993) (University of Limpopo)
- The State v Zinhle Maditla
- Oothuizen and Another v S 2018 (2) SACR 237 (SCA)
- Bambela and Another v National Director of Public Prosecutions (7179/2014)  ZAGPPHC 518 (26 January 2018)
- Standard Bank of South Africa Ltd v Msibi and Another (43315/16)  ZAGPPHC 384 (16 February 2018)
The very first woman to be appointed as the Deputy Judge President of the Mpumalanga High Court, Judge Segopotje Sheila Mphahlele now seeks to be appointed as the Judge President of the Mpumalanga Division of the High Court.
If recommended and appointed, she would be the second women currently holding a position of judicial leadership.
You could almost hear a pin drop in the courtroom as Mphahlele read the judgment in State v Zinhle Maditla, possibly one of the saddest cases to come before the courts in recent times. A mother had killed her four children – two girls aged 4 and 8, and two boys aged 7 years and 11 months – by feeding them bread laced with poison after a fight with her then partner, the father of two of the children.
In handing down the verdict and sentencing Maditla to 4 life terms in prison, Mphahlele noted that: “[t]he accused betrayed her own children. Having consumed the poison, the children did not die immediately … they died long painful deaths. What is mostly disturbing is that these acts took place at their own [haven] with their mother. As a result, I could not find exceptional reasons which justify a deviation from the prescribed minimum sentence.
”Mphahele started her legal career as a claims handler at the Road Accident Fund in 1994, before serving her articles of clerkship with Routledges Incorporated, Johannesburg in 1995. She 1996 she ceded her articles of clerkship to Lephoko & Ledwaba Attorneys, Pretoria, and was admitted as an attorney in June 1998, and immediately commenced practise.
In September 1999 she established her own legal practice, Mphahlele Attorneys, which focused on property law, employment law, commercial law and the administration of deceased and insolvent estates. Including litigation in the high court and magistrates’ courts.
Whilst practising as an attorney, Mphahlele was appointed as the managing member of the insolvency practice at Merithing Trust CC, which formed part of the trustee, liquidator, judicial manager panel of the master of the high court, Gauteng and North West divisions.
Mphahlele also served on several regulatory bodies, including the licensing committee of the Financial Services Board, the Companies Tribunal, the appeals tribunal of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, and a presiding officer at the Compensation Commission.
She was also actively involved in the affairs of the legal profession, including serving as a member of the Magistrates Commission, chairperson of the Gauteng Law Council, deputy president of the Law Society of the Northern Provinces, and as senior examiner in the Attorneys Admission Exams.
She also held memberships of several progressive lawyers’ organisations, including the SA Women Lawyers’ Association (SAWLA), the Association for the Advancement of Black Insolvency Practitioners (AABIP), and the Pretoria branch chairperson of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL).
Mphahlele was appointed as a permanent judge in the Gauteng High Court in December 2013, and sat on numerous cases in the busy Johannesburg seat of the court. She also served on the court’s Library Committee.
In Kim Yates v SA Council for Natural Science Professionals, Mphahlele was called upon to decided if fire investigators fell within the ambit of “natural science professionals” and whether they are obliged to be registered with the statutory professional council. She found that there was no statutory obligation for the fire investigators to be registered, and that preventing them from practising their profession, for failing to do so would be an unjustified limitation of their constitutional right to practice their trade or occupation.
Mphahlele was involved in the formative stages of the Mpumalanga High Court, including regularly sitting on circuit in the province, in order to build capacity. In 2019, she was one of a small crop of judges who transferred from Gauteng to permanently join the Mpumalanga High Court.
From as early as Januaury 2019 Mphahlele served as acting deputy judge president of the Mpumalanga High Court, presiding over the court’s Middelburg seat. Following her successful interview in April 2021, she was permanently appointed as Deputy Judge President in August of that year.
Mphahlele has also been actively involved in several training and mentorship initiatives, including judicial skills training for aspirant judges, advocacy training for legal practitioners, and mentorship of women law students, under the auspices of the South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges (SAC-IAWJ), a body that aims to advance women’s rights, and equal justice for women and girls.
The Mamelodi-born Mphahlele completed her B. Proc in 1991 and her LLB in 1993, both at the University of Limpopo.
During her April 2021 interview for Deputy Judge President, Professor Engela Schlemmer asked what Mphahlele would consider the pinnacle of her legal career. “To be Judge President,” Mphahlele replied with a blushing smirk. Perhaps that was a foretelling of whats to come.
April 2023 Interview:
April 2023 Interview Synopsis:
Photographer David Goldblatt’s The Transported of KwaNdebele loomed hauntingly over Mpumalanga high court deputy judge president Segopotje Mphahlele’s interview for promotion to head that division.
Describing the long distances that litigants have to travel to courts in the province and the detrimental effect it had on access to justice for mainly rural and economically marginalised communities, Mphahlele observed that by the time people travelled from places like KwaNdebele to Middelburg, one of two permanent courts in the division, “I would be done with my roll.”
The images of Goldbatt’s 1989 book of photographic essays, comprising of workers who caught buses from the former KwaNdebele bantustan — an economic wasteland — at 2.45 in the morning so as to report for work in Pretoria by 7am — and then made the return journey arriving home by 10pm every night was inescapable. And provided lamentable proof of how little has changed for many South Africans almost thirty years after the end of apartheid and its bantustans.
Mphahlele suggested that setting up mobile courts to travel around the province would be an antidote for such a limiting aspect of ordinary citizens’ experience of democracy and the justice system.
In her opening remarks Mphahlele pinpointed other pressing matters which needed to be addressed to ensure the proper functioning of a division with an ever-increasing backlog which she described as “very serious”.
Mphahlele said two of the five circuit courts in the province had “collapsed” because of the “insufficient number of judges” and their being beholden to load-shedding’s effects on the magistrates’ courts which usually house these hearings.
Load-shedding is having a disastrous effect on the Mpumalanga courts, especially at Middelburg where there is no generator and the court is reliant on the SAPS police station providing one: “When it is repaired, we wait,” Mphahlele said matter-of-factly.
Mphahlele said there was a need for more civil cases to be heard at circuit courts and that the language of record – English – had an alienating effect on litigants, many of whom were not proficient in the language.
Mphahlele’s interview was infused with passionate pleas to Justice Minister Ronald Lamola for more financial backing to turnaround a division with deep-running resource shortages.
Her firm grasp of the issues facing the division confirmed Judge President Frans Legodi’s remarks that he had “started offloading” his responsibilities onto her as “kind of a hand-over”.
Mphahlele, who has two outstanding judgments, assured the commission that her additional workload would not lead to a bottle-neck of reserved judgments.
Responding to concerns raised by the General Council of the Bar about the practise directives being issued by the court, Mphahlele said these had not been raised with her when she chaired the provincial efficiency enhancement committee.
Acknowledging that the division was the “new babies on the block” Mphahlele said that “practise directives were not cast in stone” and that the judge-president’s “office door is open”.
Mphahlele said her approach to conflict management within the division would be to treat people like adults while relying on emotional intelligence to resolve issues because a “leader must intervene to harmonise”.
Noting that a judge president should provide both “administrative and intellectual leadership” to their division, Advocate Kameshni Pillay SC invited Mphahlele to comment on the fact that she did not have a single reported judgment. Mphahlele said that she had no control of which judgments were marked reported or not but when pressed by Pillay one whether she had marked them “reportable”, she claimed her modesty in “not indicating” those she felt were reportable.
Mphahlele was recommended for appointment by the JSC.
April 2021 Interview:
April 2021 Interview Synopses:
“What is your view n the allegations that judges are corrupt, do you think it has merit?” came the question from Commissioner Thami Dodovu to Judge Sheila Mphahlele, one of two candidates for deputy judge president of the Mpumalanga High Court. “I was concerned to hear allegations floating around that judges – I’ve never met any corrupt judge – but I was comforted by the Chief Justice’s call that such allegations must be reported so they may be dealt with,” Mphahlele replied.
One of the founding judges of the still small but increasingly busy Mpumalanga Division of the High Court, Judge Sheila Mphahlele probably made an obvious choice to serve as inaugural Deputy Judge President. Her active role in the establishment of the Middleburg seat of the court was recognised early in the interview, as Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng went through her CV.
A relatively new division, JSC commissioners were keen to hear about the challenges of the Mpumalanga courts. Commissioner Doris Tshepe asked what the DJP’s role in the functioning of the magistracy. Mphahlele explained that as ADJP she’s been involved in the Provincial Efficiency Enhancement Committee, where issues of the magistrates courts were raised and addressed.
Asked by Commissioner Ettienne Barnard what leadership qualities does Mphahlele possess that would persuade the JSC to appoint her to the leadership role? Mphahlele lists her involvement in various councils and committees in the legal profession, her running of her attorneys’ and insolvency practice, and her training and mentorship initiatives as both practitioner and judge.
Mphahlele’s interview was successful and she was appointed as Deputy Judge President.