Sawla celebrates women icons

May 1st, 2012
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By Nomfundo Manyathi

The South African Women Lawyers’ Association (Sawla) held its fourth annual general meeting in Stellenbosch on 31 March. The AGM was preceded with an ‘icons dinner’ at which Sawla celebrated and honoured women’s engagement in the law.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and the Justice Department’s Deputy Minister, Andries Nel, were guest speakers at the dinner, where Sawla celebrated, among others, the first female:

  • Justice Minister, Brigitte Mabandla;
  • Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela;
  • South African judge in the International Criminal Court, Navanethem ‘Navi’ Pillay;
  • Judge President, Mashangu Monica Leeuw.

In her keynote address, Ms Madonsela spoke about women in law who had played a part in the struggle against apartheid. She said that she was often told that she was ‘brave’ but when she looked at the lives of the ‘women on whose footsteps we tread’, she realised that theirs were ‘the true acts of bravery’.

Ms Madonsela highlighted some of the achievements of women lawyers involved in the struggle. She said: ‘I am always particularly humbled by the women lawyers who made sacrifices by joining the struggle against apartheid. We will never forget Victoria Mxenge, who lost her life in the pursuit of justice and human rights for fellow human beings. I recall with much awe the courage of Shulamith Muller, an attorney and member of the South African Communist Party who gave up white privilege in pursuit of the struggle.’

Ms Madonsela said that women lawyers should be questioning their role as the South African democracy turned 18. She said that as the country struggled to consolidate constitutional democracy, Sawla’s challenge remained that of making its voice heard, including on issues of anti-corruption and democracy, adding that women needed to ensure that their voices were heard in democracy and constitutional dialogues in the country. ‘Women lawyers cannot be bystanders as their country struggles to define its path to the future,’ she said.

Ms Madonsela said that Sawla could be ‘the voice of reason’ and could also play a role in citizen empowerment by helping communities understand how government worked, what questions to ask, to whom to address their questions and the channels available to them to do so.

She concluded her speech by urging female attorneys to mentor and promote other women in law and to help them explore the different paths and opportunities available in the profession.

Deputy Minister Nel said that he did not want to pre-empt the recent deliberations of the Magistrates’ Commission, but on the agenda of the commission were recommendations by the Appointments Committee. He said that once the appointments were announced they would ‘demonstrate very clearly’ that South Africa was on track in terms of transformation in all respects, especially with regards to gender.

Mr Nel said that Sawla represented ‘the collective voice of women within the profession’, adding that the dinner symbolised the shared commitment by women in the legal profession to the process of transformation as envisioned by the Constitution.

Mr Nel also used the opportunity to discuss the recently announced assessment of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal jurisprudence. ‘All of you would have seen the reports regarding the discussion documents on the transformation of the judiciary in a democratic developmental state and also the assessment of the Constitutional Court jurisprudence and then later the Supreme Court of Appeal that was announced recently. Those announcements were greeted with big and bold headlines about how we want to transform the Constitutional Court into a regional court and how we want to do all other terrible things.’

However, he said that once the documents and terms of reference were released people started to appreciate the importance as well as the value of the exercise.

Mr Nel said that the assessment was aimed at enhancing the legislative measures and programmes designed and developed by government to realise the objectives in the Constitution.

Deputy Minister Nel appealed to Sawla to become actively involved in the assessment process.

Twenty women were honoured as ‘Sawla icons’ on the night, including former Law Society of South Africa co-chairperson Thoba Poyo-Dlwati and retired Constitutional Court Justice Kate O’Reagan.

Other women honoured were from different sectors of the legal profession who have ‘consistently and relentlessly worked towards equality and justice for all and through their work have inspired a generation to enter the legal profession and to excel’.

The keynote address at the AGM was delivered by the director-general of the Justice Department, Nonkululeko Sindane, who said that women had the potential to strengthen South Africa’s democracy.

Ms Sindane said that Sawla was ‘well positioned to give women lawyers a collective voice’, adding that the organisation should strengthen its resolve to address the under-representation of women in the legal sector and also to work decisively in addressing the perception of women’s ability, values and legal acumen.

The deputy director of gender issues at the Justice Department, Ntibidi Rampete, spoke about the role of the department in supporting Sawla’s objectives. She said that the department had partnered with Sawla on a number of projects.

She added that the department was concerned about the large number of law students that completed university degrees but then ‘fell through the cracks’ and never entered the mainstream legal profession either as attorneys or advocates. She questioned where these students were, especially the female ones. Ms Rampete urged Sawla to set up student chapters around South Africa and to monitor female law graduates.

At the end of the AGM, Sawla President Noxolo Maduba read out her annual report. She said that the current national executive committee took office on 12 March 2011 for a three-year term.

She said that two of Sawla’s achievements in the past year were to open a bank account and to revive its website. Ms Maduba said that the website was the key communication tool with Sawla members and had attracted a number of new members. She added that between December 2011 and 15 March 2012 approximately 105 female attorneys became Sawla members.

Ms Maduba mentioned that Sawla had been registered as a non-profit organisation in February 2012, which would assist the organisation in applying for sponsorship.

Sawla membership fees were not increased at the AGM. They are currently:

  • Ordinary members: R 200 once-off joining fee and R 240 per year.
  • Paralegals: R 150 once-off joining fee and R 120 per year.
  • Candidate attorneys/pupils: R 100 once-off joining fee and R 100 per year.
  • Students: R 50 once-off joining fee and R 50 per year.

Nomfundo Manyathi, nomfundo@derebus.org.za

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2012 (May) DR 8.