Journey of women lawyers in the profession

February 11th, 2019
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By Mapula Sedutla

The Mpumalanga branch of the South African Women Lawyers Association (SAWLA) held its annual general meeting (AGM) in November 2018 in White River under the theme ‘Corruption in the legal profession’. On the evening of the AGM, a gala dinner was held for the announcement of the first Woman Lawyer Award winner.

SAWLA Mpumalanga branch Chairperson, Nomaswazi Shabangu-Mndawe, opened the proceedings by saying even though 2018 was marred by reports of corruption in the legal profession, it was important to celebrate the achievements made by the profession. Ms Shabangu-Mndawe added: ‘This is the year we saw lawyers accused of corrupt activities. We should never forget the oath we took that we will serve the community of South Africa. It pains me to see that instead we are doing the opposite of helping the community.’

The Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, John Jeffery, began his address by recounting the history of women in the legal profession.

Women in law

The Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, John Jeffery began his address by recounting the history of women in the legal profession. Mr Jeffery noted that today, out of about 250 permanent judges in South Africa, 93 are women that is 37%, he added that number is still not nearly enough when it should be at least 50%. He went on further to say: ‘Of the 93 women judges, 43 are African, 11 are coloured, 10 are Indian and 26 are white. With regards the magistracy, we have been more successful when it comes to transformation. Remember, this is where the vast majority of South Africans access justice. The number of African women magistrates has increased from 62 in 1998 to 472 in 2018. As judicial officers come from the profession, how are we doing there? In private practice, out of roughly 26 700 attorneys practicing today, 40% are women with 23% being white women and 17% black women. Of the advocates at the Bar the figures look worse. The problem with the attorneys is that you might have the numbers, but as you go higher up in the profession, it gets paler and “maler” when it comes to directors and senior partners etcetera. Of the 3 083 advocates with the General Council of the Bar only 28% are

Judge of the Eastern Cape Local Division of the High Court in Mthatha, Buyiswa Majiki, said that in the present day, there is still a need to ensure that there is a safe environment for women and children in South Africa and internationally.

women. More worryingly, of the 537 silks countrywide, only 50 are women.’

Mr Jeffery pointed out that the legal profession has always been traditionally white and male internationally. He added: ‘The challenge for all of us, lies not only in attracting women to the profession, but also retaining them and ensuring that they get briefs and that the types of work they do will sustain their practices. In Mpumalanga, regarding the State Attorney’s Office, the figures relating to briefs are put out monthly on the Department of Justice’s website. There is a link on the website, which links to a tab for each State Attorney Office and you will find the names of the people who got briefs, which State Attorney gave them, and the type of work they were doing. We will be opening a State Attorney Office in Mpumalanga to accompany the High Court very shortly in Nelspruit.’

Speaking about the Legal Practice Council (LPC), Mr Jeffery said: ‘We are hopeful that the newly appointed Legal Practice Council will go a long way in strengthening transformation efforts in the profession. The allocation of specific seats on the first council based on race and gender was not popular in some circles. If no specification was made, I wonder if given the white and male electorate in the profession how many black people and women would have been elected to the LPC?’

Is there a need for SAWLA?

Judge of the Eastern Cape Local Division of the High Court in Mthatha, Buyiswa Majiki, began her address by stating that it is possible to eventually become a judge even if you have to travel a long journey. Judge Majiki added: ‘We meet during the year where we celebrate the stalwarts of our movement, Nelson Mandela and mama [Albertina] Sisulu. I am referring to them because those are the people who have started the journey and made sure that I can stand here today and say that I am one of the people who have benefitted from their efforts.’

Judge Majiki noted that in the present day, there is still a need to ensure that there is a safe environment for women and children in South Africa (SA) and internationally. Speaking about the history of SAWLA Judge Majiki said: ‘Just to trace back on how far we have come as SAWLA, why was SAWLA formed? Why did we see a need that there must be this organisation? As humans we form our ideas in terms of our circumstances. Those ideas compel us to influence our circumstances, we had to feel a certain pain as women lawyers in order for us to think what is it that we can do to improve our situation. For instance, then I was serving on the national gender desk of NADEL [National Association of Democratic Lawyers], we still had the same problems, we did not have briefs. I worked in a small town and we relied on walk in clients. We needed to do something to improve our circumstances. We came together and approached the then Minister of Justice, Brigitte Mabandla. We shared our concerns that we were not getting enough work to sustain our practices and we saw most of our colleagues leaving practice. Even though some of us were determined that we were going to stay in practice, it was difficult. She said to us she cannot hear a woman in one corner, a woman in that corner and another woman in one corner. She said women should learn to come together and speak in one voice. The minister convened a Women’s Indaba in May 2006, that was the first of its kind, where we resolved that we need to form a national organisation and then SAWLA was formed. For me, the objectives why SAWLA was formed were relevant and are still relevant today. One of the objectives, which is still relevant today and is found in 3.2 of the SAWLA constitution, is to “facilitate the participation of women lawyers in policy dialogues in South Africa particularly relating to the constitutionalism, the transformation of the legal system, women empowerment and the achievement of gender equality.”’

South African Women Lawyers Association Mpumalanga branch Chairperson and Woman Lawyer Award winner, Nomaswazi Shabangu-Mndawe.

Woman Lawyer Award

On the evening of the conference, a gala dinner was held. The gala dinner was kick started by the awarding of the Woman Lawyer Award to Ms Shabangu-Mndawe. Guest speakers for the evening were former Premier of Mpumalanga, Dr Nakedi Mathews Phosa; and Tax Ombudsman, Bernard Ngoepe.

Dr Phosa advised lawyers that when they prepare for an argument they should spend a third of their time thinking about what they are going to say and two-thirds of the time thinking about what their opponent is going to say. Dr Phosa recounted a story about an American lawyer who drafted a Will for a client and charged the client US$ 100. He added: ‘The client gave him what he thought was US$ 100 and left. When the attorney discovered that it was US$ 200, looking at the US$ 100 overpayment, an ethical question arose in the mind of that lawyer. Do I tell my partner? Would you tell your partner?’

Former Premier of Mpumalanga, Dr Nakedi Mathews Phosa, noted that law as a profession is one of the most venerated occupations.

Dr Phosa noted that lawyer jokes prevail in society and lawyers cannot avoid them. ‘Many people will say that they are just light-hearted fun, while others will dismiss them with a shrug because people are jealous of lawyers. The nature of the jokes about lawyers often reflect the common stereotypes about lawyers. People laugh because there is a perceived element of truth. The worrying fact is that all jokes about lawyers have, at their heart, serious character flaws be it dishonesty, lack of integrity values not to be proud of. I can speak with a lot of authority as one of the chairpersons of the disciplinary committees of the law society I have seen greed, dishonesty and lack of integrity, I do not think that represents our values as lawyers,’ he added.

Dr Phosa pointed out that law as a profession is one of the most venerated occupations notwithstanding all the lawyer jokes that non-lawyers love to tell. He added ‘I believe that the law is the ultimate bastion of universal social engagement, social consciousness and social cohesion. The law is set by the state and defines what is right and wrong. But it must be underpinned by ethical values of acceptable human behavior. How do I want others to behave towards me and concomitantly how should I behave towards them? It does not help, therefore, when leaders and icons say one thing and do another without consequences and repercussions.’

Tax Ombudsman, Bernard Ngoepe, began his address by asking delegates in attendance of the gala dinner whether South Africa has the best Constitution in the world.

Judge Ngoepe began his address by asking delegates in attendance of the gala dinner whether South Africa has the best Constitution in the world. ‘One of the problems that we have in this country is that in making law, interpreting law and applying it we divorce it from certain fundamental rules, which are meant to govern human conduct. … Those rules should enrich our law. I think human conduct was meant to be governed so that it could be channelled in the right direction it has always been so. And the reason why human conduct has to be channelled and governed is to avoid extinction.  … Yes, it is cold law that should govern our behaviour, what I describe as cold law is what is taught at university. My question is, is that enough to govern the conduct of human beings to the level where it should be? If I look around I have reservations to that question. To contrast cold law with other rules that are material to governing our conduct. Those rules include among others, rules of morality and religion. … Cold law alone will never govern human conduct to the level where it should be,’ Judge Ngoepe added.

Mapula Sedutla NDip Journ (DUT) BTech (Journ) (TUT) is the editor of De Rebus.