Women in leadership positions celebrated at the launch of the BLA’s Women’s Forum

October 22nd, 2019
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The Black Lawyer Association’s (BLA’s) National Executive Committee with the celebrants who were honoured at the launch of the BLA’s Women’s Forum on 28 September. Back row, from left: Administrator, Judith Mabelane; Treasurer, Mongezi Mpahlwa; General Secretary, Noxolo Maduba-Silevu; BLA President, Lutendo Sigogo; Head of Events and Campaigns, Mabaeng Denise Lenyai; and BLA Deputy President, Baitseng Rangata. Front row, from left: Legal practitioner and board member of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, Nonduduzo Khanyile; Judge in the KwaZulu-Natal Division of the High Court, Thoba Poyo-Dlwati; legal practitioner and member of the Competition Tribunal, Andiswa Ndoni; legal practitioner and Chairperson of the Legal Practice Council, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu; and legal practitioner and former BLA Student Chapter President, Pearl Biyela.

 

By Kgomotso Ramotsho

Women who have held leadership positions in the legal profession were honoured at the official launch of the Black Lawyers Association’s (BLA) Women’s Forum in Johannesburg on 28 September. The master of ceremonies for the evening, BLA’s Head of Events and Campaigns and the Vice-President of the Law Society of South Africa, Mabaeng Denise Lenyai, said the BLA’s Women’s Task Team wanted the event to be successful so that it can be established as an annual event where women in the legal profession are celebrated.

Ms Lenyai added that another reason that the BLA held the prestigious event was that women could meet to speak about issues affecting them, as well as their achievements in the profession. Deputy President of the BLA, Baitseng Rangata, pointed out that it is often said that women cannot work together, however, it took a team of women to plan and make the event possible. She said senior female legal practitioners in the BLA have been tasked to care for the young legal practitioners that are coming up in the legal profession. She noted that there are issues such as gender-based violence, which is a reality for women and children in South Africa (SA). Ms Rangata also pointed out that in the legal profession women face other issues, such as the lack of work, which often sees them close their law firms or leave their chambers as they cannot afford to keep them open.

Ms Rangata said that the BLA condemns all forms of violence that is currently happening in the country. She added that the issue of lack of work for female legal practitioners was addressed when the BLA marched to the Union Buildings in 2017 (see ‘BLA marches to voice dissatisfaction on legal work distributed by government’ 2017 (Sept) DR 9). She noted that the BLA is hopeful that the new Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola, will address some of the challenges the legal profession is facing, as he always shows commitment and makes himself available whenever he is invited to meetings.

Five women were celebrated and honoured at the launch. They were tasked to speak about their experiences in the various leadership positions they have held in the profession. Legal practitioner, former member of the Judicial Services Commission, member of the Competition Tribunal, and the first and only female National President of the BLA, Andiswa Ndoni, was among the women being honoured. Ms Ndoni said that she was grateful and excited to be honoured alongside some of her colleagues who have contributed immensely to the BLA and the legal profession at large. She pointed out that the journey that led her to becoming President of the BLA started in 1984 when she had been practising law for only three months.

Ms Ndoni said she could have easily declined the nomination, however, she realised that women needed to raise themselves to leadership positions, even if they did not feel that they would be good at it. She added that her position as the President of the BLA came with challenges, such as a daily dose of sexism. Ms Ndoni said to survive, she had to have what she called the six ingredients of success, which are ­–

  • hard work and dedication;
  • a willingness to serve;
  • a personal board of directors who she could turn to for guidance and advice;
  • building powerful networks in both a formal and informal environment, where women can uplift other women and lead with kindness;
  • knowing yourself and your purpose; and
  • not taking things personally.

Ms Ndoni thanked the BLA’s task team on the great initiative of the Women’s Forum and congratulated the leadership of the BLA on the work they have been doing with regard to striving for a transformed legal profession. She said a lot of work has been done, but a lot more is still needs to be done.

One of the founding members of the South African Women Lawyers Association (SAWLA), and former President of the Southern African Development Community Lawyers Association (SADC LA) and current Judge at the KwaZulu-Natal Division of the High Court, Thoba Poyo-Dlwati, said she was humbled to be honoured by the BLA for her contribution to the organisation. She added that she joined the BLA in 1997 while she was completing her articles. She said back then the advantage of being involved in the BLA – as a woman – led to many opportunities, because every time the organisation wanted to ‘balance the equation’, they would call on female members to take part in key roles because ‘transformation had to happen’. She pointed out that she was a young girl who ‘made a lot of noise’ because it was important at the time, however, it was done at proper forums.

Judge Poyo-Dlwati shared her experience of how her friendship with Ms Ndoni started in a ladies room at a BLA annual general meeting and it is still going strong. She said the moral behind the story of their friendship is that women need to be their ‘sister’s keeper’ and women need to lean on one another. She said that from the moment she and Ms Ndoni met they have supported each other and have been direct and straight to the point with one another. She told guests at the event that as her responsibilities grew at her BLA branch, she would meet men who would tell women they were beautiful, adding that those women would then become uncomfortable. She told the women at the event to say thank you and keep moving. Judge Poyo-Dlwati also warned women that men use women against one another to get the positions they want.

Former General Secretary of the BLA, former Chairperson and Executive Member of the Legal Practitioners Fidelity Fund and Board Member of Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, Nonduduzo Khanyile, said her journey with the BLA started in 1998 when she joined a law firm and her boss told her that as a legal practitioner she could not afford to not belong to a member based organisation. She added that her boss at the time told her that he was a BLA member and that is how she joined the BLA. Ms Khanyile credited her success at the BLA to the late President of the BLA, Mvuseni Ngubane, whom she said was her mentor and support system.

Ms Khanyile said as the BLA’s Women’s Forum is launched, women cannot say they did it alone, because there were very supportive men, such as the late Mr Ngubane who natured them and assisted them. She pointed out that for most of the leadership positions that she has assumed, she took them after being pushed to do so. She noted that some people who have leadership abilities, sometimes need to be pushed to recognise their abilities to lead. She echoed the words of Judge Poyo-Dlwati that women need each other to nurture and support one another.

University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) law graduate, former branch chairperson of the BLA at UKZN, former Black Lawyers Association Student Chapter (BLASC) Female President, and member of SADC LA Student Council, Pearl Biyela, said that she was inspired by her fellow colleagues, but also acknowledged that the road ahead is a long one. She said that her generation has seen the sacrifices that the women before her generation made for them, which enabled them to have the platforms they have today. She added that they will carry the baton for the next generation.

Ms Biyela said that when she received the invitation to the event, she realised that it was possible that a woman can exist in a profession that was designed for a specific gender. She added that the progress in the profession was not realised because the focus is currently on what still needs to be done. Ms Biyela shared how when she was the chairperson of her UKZN BLA branch, while recruiting new members for the BLA, a male student boldly told her that he would not join the BLA because the chairperson was female. She pointed out that she did not take it as a personal attack but as an eye opener that a long way was needed to be travelled by the BLA and the nation as a whole. However, she noted that since then the campaign to renew the mindset of people who did not believe in change at the BLASC level was successful, as 75% of BLA branches were led by females.

In 2017 Ms Biyela wrote about the injustice done on women and children in SA. She said at that time being female in SA, especially a black female, was a death sentence, because of the rise of brutal occurrences directed at women. She added that what she said in 2017 remains relevant to this day. Ms Biyela pointed out that one of her wishes that she had, and still has, is that the BLA can have a helpdesk where abused women and children can phone in and be given free legal advice and support.

Celebrant and former Co-chairperson of the Law Society of South Africa, Director of Molefe Dlepu Attorneys, member of the Gauteng Legislature, member of the BLA National Executive Committee and the first Chairperson of the Legal Practice Council, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu, shared a bit of her life story. She said she was born and grew up in Jabulani Township in Soweto. During her schooling she had an interest in politics. After she completed school, she then decided to study law and went to study at the University of Limpopo, formerly known as the University of the North, nicknamed ‘Turfloop’ University.

Ms Matolo-Dlepu said back in the day it was fun being a student at a university as many of the things happening today did not happen then and their male counterparts respected them and made sure they were safe. Ms Matolo-Dlepu added that she once failed a course and, as a result, her mother, who was a nurse at the time, decided to enrol at Unisa to further her studies and challenge her as motivation. She said when she first graduated, she graduated the same time with her mother. The second time around they enrolled together to challenge and motivate each other.

Ms Matolo-Dlepu pointed out that during her first year of completing her articles her principle was struck off the roll, not knowing what to do she went to the then provincial law society in tears. They assisted her to find articles again. She said her second principal forced her to join the BLA in 1986 and since then, she fell in love with the organisation. Ms Matolo-Dlepu said it was an honour for her to be recognised by an organisation that is in her blood. She told attendees at the event to stop competing with other women and gossiping about each other, but instead hold on to one another.

Ms Dlepu said to be in a leadership position you need other women to put you there. Ms Dlepu pointed out that in all the leadership positions she assumed the most challenging one has been the chairperson of the LPC, however, she said that her family, the BLA, and other organisations, such as the National Association of Democratic Lawyers keep her going. She added that she also surrounds herself with women who are not in the same profession with her, to draw strength from them, to talk about other life issues, to help them when they are in need of legal advice.

Council Member of the LPC and President of the BLA, Lutendo Sigogo said that as a man in SA he acknowledges that society is sick. He pointed out that traditionally a woman’s word is final. He added that as a man when you experience a problem at home or seek blessing to marry you first go to a woman in the family and that is important. He said a lot has to be done in SA to deal with injustices that are directed towards women and children by men. Mr Sigogo then shared how he had different encounters with all five honoured members working with them in the BLA and in the profession at large. He congratulated the celebrants and the BLA’s Women’s Task Team on the official opening of the Women’s Forum. He said the Women’s Forum celebration should be an annual event where more women will be celebrated for their achievements.

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.