Women’s Day: 100 years of women in the legal profession
April 2023 marks 100 years since women were allowed to enter the legal profession as practitioners. This is a huge milestone in the history of South Africa. This August, for women’s month, we celebrate and salute women pioneers in the judiciary and highlight some of the progress made.
In 1994, there were only two women on the bench, both of them white: Judge Leonora van den Heever and Judge Jeanette Traverso. The first black woman judge was Johannesburg Judge Mokgadi Mailula, appointed in 1994, followed by Constitutional Court Justice Yvonne Mokgoro.
Based on February 2023 statistics from the Judiciary Annual Report 2021/2022, there are currently 253 judges in the Superior Courts including the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court of Appeal and High Courts and specialist courts. Of the 253, approximately 113 are women. Which translates to about 45% of the total.
While there have been tremendous strides towards achieving gender parity in the judiciary broadly, there is still a gap at the judicial leadership level, where women are under-represented by far (see this article).
Justice Mandisa Maya was the first black woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2002. She would later become the first black woman deputy president (2015 – 2017) and subsequently president of that court (2017 – 2022). Later, in 2022, she was appointed the first woman Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa. Her successor as president of the SCA is also a woman, Justice Mahube Molemela (2023 – present).
Judge Monica Leeuw became the first woman judge president of a high court in 2010, when she was appointed to lead the North West High Court. Since then, only three other high divisions have been led by women, these are: Free State (Judge Mahube Molemela, 2018 – 2021), KwaZulu-Natal (Judge Thoba Poyo-Dlwati, 2023 – present) and Mpumalanga (Judge Segopotje Mphahlele, 2023 – present).
Another head of court, Judge Lebogang Modiba is the first woman president of the Special Tribunal, a specialised judicial body to recover public money lost to fraud, corruption and maladministration.
Several women judges currently hold deputy judge president positions, which is a secondary layer of judicial leadership that is essential to the functioning of the high courts across the country. These are Judge Martha Mbhele (Free State), Judge Matsaro Semenya (Limpopo), Judge Violet Phatshoane (Northern Cape), and Judge Patricia Goliath (Western Cape), The Mpumalanga DJP, Judge Mphahlele, was recently promoted to judge president.
No reliable statistics exist for the racial and gender composition of the magistracy in 1994, but as of June 2022, 51% of magistrates nationwide are women and 75% of these are black. At the leadership level, four of the eight permanent Regional Court Presidents who head up regional courts across all nine provinces are women. Of the 16 chief magistrates, 10 are women. This means that the Lower Court judiciary is doing far better in getting women in leadership positions than the Superior Courts.
Gender parity in the judiciary is not just an aspiration. Without it the justice system will remain weakened and our principles of equality before the law will remain in question. The role of these women cannot be understated.
Today we want to acknowledge that journey and celebrate the women who have fought for representation, who have used their legal skills to fight for equality, justice and human rights, and who have, and continue to, inspire future generations.
To all the women of the judiciary, we salute you!