BLA celebrates the life of Desiree Finca

October 4th, 2023

Finca family at the celebratory event hosted in Desiree Finca’s honor by the Black Lawyers Association.

The Black Lawyers Association (BLA) held a celebratory dinner in honour of Desiree Finca. Ms Finca was the first black female woman to be admitted as a legal practitioner in South Africa. The celebratory function held on 19 August 2023, at Emperors Palace, was attended by members of the BLA, Ms Finca’s family, as well as some members of the judiciary, among which was the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), Judge President, Mahube Betty Molemela; Judge President of the Mpumalanga Division of the High Court, Segopotje Sheila Mphahlele and the former Deputy President of the BLA, Judge Mabaeng Denise Lenyai, of the Gauteng Division of the High Court.

President of the Black Lawyers Association, Bayethe Maswazi and Judge in the Gauteng Division of the High Court, Judge Mabaeng Denise Lenyai.

The President of BLA, Bayethe Maswazi, during his speech said that the celebration of Ms Finca is a reminder that history remains important in the journey of legal practitioners. He added that the celebration was to hoist a flag on black excellence, but also in the tenacious fight against patriarchy and male dominance. He said that Ms Finca symbolises how great other legal practitioners can be in the legal profession. He pointed out that she symbolises excellence, which legal practitioners should embrace, adding that she also symbolises the struggle of black legal practitioners all those many years ago. ‘We are here as the BLA to recognise that women have a place in society and women have a place in the legal profession and the judiciary. When we came in as this NEC, we made a commitment to excavate the legacy of black lawyers in general, but also the legacy of the BLA,’ he added.

Chairperson of the Black Lawyers Association in Limpopo, Nkosana Francois Mvundlela, attended the celebratory event that was held in honor of Ms Finca.

Council member of the Legal Practice Council, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu when giving a message of support, thanked the BLA for honouring Ms Finca whom she described as an icon. She pointed out that she was really inspired by Ms Finca, saying she is a phenomenal woman. She added that the likes of legal practitioners, Mojanku Gumbi and Kgomotso Moroka SC, have taken over from where Ms Finca left off. She said that the struggles that Ms Finca went through instilled in her and others a fighting spirit for recognition in ensuring that other women are placed at the head of the table. ‘The Legal Practice Act came about by identifying the struggles of Mma Finca, what Mma Finca went through. It has been a long painful journey; however, we have beaten the odds and now we are at the dawn of ensuring that the Legal Sector Code is gazetted. This will indeed ensure that women practitioners get to commission through their hard work from government and state-owned entities’, Ms Matolo-Dlepu added. She pointed out that it has been 100 years since women were admitted to practice law. Ms Matolo-Dlepu said that the numbers of female legal practitioners in government structures is still a far cry from reflecting the imperative of the South African Constitution.

Motseki Morobane, gave a message of support on behalf of the Law Society of South Africa

Speaking on behalf of the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), Motseki Morobane, said the LSSA was elated to have been part of this celebration of this milestone and to walk the path paved by Ms Finca. ‘For that we say thank you very much Mama Finca, I am also elated,’ said Mr Morobane.

Speaking on the journey and the life of Ms Finca, was Dr Brigalia Bam. She pointed out that they have walked the journey together for many years. She said that Ms Finca in her family was the eldest daughter born to a father who was a soldier. She pointed out that Ms Finca’s name ‘Desiree’ came from her father’s contacts in Paris. She said Ms Finca is an amazing woman with many gifts. She pointed out that like many in those years there were some limitations to things that women could do. She said that Ms Finca was privileged to go to Healdtown, a Methodist School. She said when she qualified at the school, her father advised that she must do a teacher’s post-graduate qualification and she became a teacher.

Dr Bam added that Ms Finca then got married to a psychologist who back then was one of the few black psychologists. She pointed out that Ms Finca is a singer and they thought she would end up being a great singer, like the late Miriam Makeba. She added that she was a soprano singing in a group. However, there was a sudden change and now Ms Finca was going to study law. Dr Bam added that she thinks that Ms Finca was influenced by her sister Marcia to become a legal practitioner. In 1954, Dr Bam and Marcia, together with their friend, the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, were students in Johannesburg.

Dr Bam said that on one particular day they decided to visit a law firm, and at the office at that time, the black legal practitioners were Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. She pointed out that they were so proud to be in that office, an office of black legal practitioners. She pointed out that they were so impressed and nervous at the same time. Dr Bam said that Ms Finca made them proud. ‘We were so proud that when I was overseas, I was working in Switzerland, I discovered that Swiss women do not vote,’ Dr Bam added. She said that she invited Ms Finca to come and show off that despite Apartheid, they are now going to see a legal practitioner.

Dr Bam thanked Ms Finca for being a brave woman. She said many know the challenges, but the stories have to be recorded, even with the difficulties of not remembering everything. ‘We have to do it for the archives’, Dr Bam added. She pointed out that two universities are establishing archives for collections related to black women. She said she hopes that something from Ms Finca, even if it is her old dress, goes into the archives.

Members of the Judiciary at the celebratory event hosted by the Black Lawyers Association, for the first black woman who was admitted to practice as an attorney, Desiree Finca

Keynote speaker and legal practitioner, Ms Gumbi, spoke about what Ms Finca’s admission as the first black woman legal practitioner means and what it should mean to all legal practitioners. She said it is a privilege and she is glad to be a part of those living to tell the tale of Ms Finca while she is still alive. Quoting Gabriel Garcia Marquez, she said: ‘Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.’ Ms Gumbi pointed out that Ms Finca carries the burdensome label of being the first black woman to be admitted as a legal practitioner. She said she faced many challenges, but fortunately her triumphs will be remembered.

Motseki Morobane, gave a message of support on behalf of the Law Society of South Africa

Ms Gumbi added that in one interview Ms Finca recalls how she used to be humiliated by magistrates. A magistrate in the Free State asked Ms Finca to give the name and number of a white legal practitioner in Johannesburg who could confirm that she was a legal practitioner. Only after that was she allowed to represent her clients. Ms Gumbi pointed out that by Ms Finca’s admission in 1967, she took a bold step to confront a system that sought to deny her humanity. The system imposed upon her tripled her challenges of racism, sexism and classism.

Ms Gumbi added that Ms Finca went into the practise of law in an environment where women are not seen as fully human, and black people are definitely not seen as human and poor people are relegated to the margins of society. She said that the legal system that Ms Finca was in said she was not capable of rational thought. She cited the case of the Incorporated Law Society v Wookey 1912 AD 623, where the judge said that the term ‘persons’ excluded women. Women are not persons, and the law must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the practice in England and Holland, where the court ruled that women are not allowed to practice law. She added that there was an earlier ruling by the Transvaal Supreme Court where they had decided against women practising as solicitors on the grounds of: ‘The long practice which has prevailed not only in this country, but in Holland and in England too, not to admit women to be solicitors.’ She further quoted an article that was published in the South African Law Journal in 1914 written by RPB Davis, which referred to an American court decision, which found that women were temperamentally unsuitable for the legal profession and that ‘nature has tempered women as little for the juristical conflicts in the courtroom as for the physical conflicts of the battlefield’.

Ms Gumbi said Ms Finca came to a world that gave triple oppression on women and added humiliation, saying women cannot practice law. She added that she is really happy that Judge President Dunstan Mlambo set these cases aside ceremoniously. ‘We are waiting for the Constitutional Court to set aside the Women Legal Practitioners Act [7 of 1923] ceremoniously, because we as black people did not play any part in the debate or passing of that Act, because we were declared foreigners in our own country,’ Ms Gumbi added. She pointed out that she raised this issue when she was addressing an event hosted by the South African Women Lawyers Association, that context is important. She said Ms Finca was admitted as the first black woman attorney in terms of the South African law at the time, which was based on English and Dutch Law. ‘Our own African history is replete with examples of women rulers, and we know that rulers in indigenous societies also discharged judicial functions,’ Ms Gumbi said.

Deputy Secretary General of the Black Lawyers Association, Ncumisa Sotenjwa; with guest speaker at Desiree Finca’s celebration, Advocate Mojanko Gumbi; and Secretary General of the Black Lawyers Association, Charlotte Malatji

Ms Gumbi said the current generation of legal practitioners must ask the question whether the democracy they inherited is worth the struggles, the humiliation and the degradation. Whether they are worthy custodians of the struggles Ms Finca fought hard against? Ms Gumbi pointed out that the Constitution of South Africa opens up with the words: ‘We, the people of South Africa, recognise the injustices of our past.’ She added that the Constitution is the supreme law of the country, therefore, everyone is bound by the Constitution. She said that the courts are also bound by the Constitution and the point that she was making was that the demand for correcting the injustice of the past runs throughout the Constitution. She stressed that the need for the judiciary to reflect broadly the racial and gender composition must be considered when judicial officers are appointed.

Ms Finca’s grandson, Yolisamazaza Mkhele said that he was 19-years-old when he discovered that she had a name. He said that he confidently speaks for many family members that even before they knew of her accomplishments, she was a woman of gravitas, she was always bold, assertive, and proud. He added that the woman that he had known his whole life has always been amazing and the BLA’s celebration proves that. He pointed out that because of his grandmother and other women in his life he has never been known to be incapable in his life. He said that for Ms Finca to become the first black woman legal practitioner at the time that the law itself was engineered to work against her was incredible. He thanked the BLA for the time and effort they had put in honouring Ms Finca. He said it was heartwarming to see how others perceive Ms Finca in the same way their family does. He also thanked his family for having been a part of Ms Finca’s journey. He concluded by thanking Ms Finca and said that without her, their family would not be at the celebratory event. That his grandmother has contributed not only to their family but to the nation as well and for that they are incredibly grateful.

Members of the Black Lawyers Association at the celebratory even that the organisation held for the first black women to be admitted as an attorney Desiree Finca.

At Ms Finca celebration the BLA, also honoured the following women in the judiciary:

  • Judge President of the SCA, Mahube Betty Molemela;
  • Judge President of the Mpumalanga Divisions of the High Court, Segopotje Sheila Mphahlele;
  • Deputy Judge President of the North West Division of the High Court, Tebogo Jennifer Djaje;
  • Acting Judge President of the Limpopo Division of the High Court, Matsaro Violet Semenya;
  • Judge in the Gauteng Division of the High Court, Colleen Collis;
  • Judge in the Western Cape Division of the High Court, Babalwa Mantame;
  • Judge in the Land Claims Court, Luleka Flatela;  
  • Judge in the Gauteng Division of the High Court, Elizabeth Mamoloko Kubushi; and
  • Judge in Gauteng Division of the High Court, Mabaeng Denise Lenyai.

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