Celebration of 100 years of women in the practice of law

June 1st, 2023

Judges and legal practitioners at the ceremonial sitting that was held at the Johannesburg High Court on 25 April 2023

The Judiciary, in partnership with the South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges, held a ceremonial sitting in the different divisions of the High Court, across the country to commemorate the centenary of the Women Legal Practitioners Act 7 of 1923.

In a ceremonial sitting that was held in the Local Division of the High Court in Johannesburg, a gathering took place to reflect on the journey of women in the legal profession from the past century. The gathering included speakers from the legal profession who shared their own personal stories and reflections.

Johannesburg Society of Advocates, Advocate Moroka SC, speaking at the ceremonial sitting held in the Johannesburg High Court on 25 April 2023, to commemorate the centenary of the Women Legal Practitioners Act 7 of 1923.

In a speech at the ceremonial sitting, legal practitioner, Kgomotso Moroka SC reflected on her journey in the legal profession. In her speech she spoke about the moment when she completed her law studies and was required to do her articles of clerkship. Ms Moroka pointed out that no law firm would hire her, except for one that gave her the opportunity, however, before she could work there, she had to take an IQ test. She further spoke about when she joined the Johannesburg Bar and said that she was the second black female advocate in that Bar, long after the Women Legal Practitioners Act was promulgated, which was in 1989. She pointed out that life was tough for women. She added that she had three children at that time and had to balance work and home life.

Ms Moroka added there was a point that she had brought her five-year-old child with her to work and that some of her colleagues would assist in looking after her child and she added that she was thankful to those colleagues for helping her. She pointed out that she had a passion, and she still has that passion that there will be change in South Africa (SA) and the country will be transformed. ‘We will make ourselves count, we will have ourselves count, we will have the dignity to be counted as human beings,’ Ms Moroka said.

Ms Mokora added that she had the privilege of serving on the Judicial Service Commission. ‘I had the privilege and the honour to interview Lucy Mailula to become the first black judge of this division. When I tell that story it sounds easy – Lucy came and was fit and proper to be a judge – I can tell you now that it was not easy. I can tell you now that there was resistance,’ Ms Moroka added. She pointed out that the emotional blind spot of some saying Judge Maimela could not be a judge, that she was not fit enough and does not have the experience and was not ready to be a judge. She said one would ask the question, when will she be ready to be a judge? Ms Moroka pointed out that it was a long battle, a battle about getting an inclusive bench.  

During her presentation at the ceremonial sitting, President of the Law Society of South Africa, Eunice Masipa, said that some consider Lidia Poet to be the first female attorney. She added that despite Lidia Poet passing her law examination, receiving her degree, the inscription of a woman on the roll ‘did not please’ the Italian Office of the Attorney General, who argued that women were forbidden by law to enter the profession. Ms Masipa said that was in 1883. She pointed out that 43 years later, SA saw its first woman being admitted as an attorney.

Ms Masipa said that those were historic moments. She pointed out that another historic moment occurred almost 17 years ago when women in the practice of law from all over Africa were brought together to

The President of the Law Society of South Africa, Eunice Masipa spoke at the commemoration of the centenary of the Women Legal Practitioners Act 7 of 1923.

speak about the legal profession at the South African Women in Law Indaba in 2006. At the Indaba, then Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Brigitte Mabandla, recounted the selfless contributions made by women stalwarts for ‘paving the way for us’.

Ms Masipa added that the current structure of the legal profession and the underrepresentation of women fail to accurately mirror the diversity of the country’s population. ‘[Matilda Lasseko-Phooko and Safia Mahomed (2021)] argue that “the preferred approach to understanding gender equality is “substantive equality’’’. Substantive equality is described as an approach that looks at the overall effect of policies that are meant to achieve gender equality. This understanding is rooted in the recognition that inequality within the profession arises from deeply entrenched political, social, and economic disparities between men and women,’ Ms Masipa added.

Ms Masipa pointed out that this calls for the understanding that gender equality requires more than simply enacting policies, it requires a nuanced understanding of how those policies will impact different groups of people. Ms Masipa said that it is crucial that women actively work towards combating stereotypes and prejudice that target women. As these can create a lack of opportunities for women. ‘To truly promote gender equality, we must ensure every woman is given a voice and the opportunity to fully participate,’ Ms Masipa said.

Deputy National Director of Public Prosecutions, Ouma Rabaji-Rasethaba, reflected on how difficult things are for female legal practitioners. She added that at the Bench things are much easier. She pointed out that as a starting point, salaries are the same. She added that in the public sector the salary is also the same. She said that in the private sector, such as listed companies, there is a difference in salaries when it comes to female legal practitioner, adding that it is a rough world.

Ms Rabaji-Rasethaba said that equality is not yet recognised. She added that there was a study done by an international consulting firm in 2011, which came out with the result that men are appointed on potential, but women on proven accomplishment. She proposed solutions on how the legal profession can move forward, namely female legal practitioners must own their own narrative, remember that they are one of the best, get rid of fear and be the hope of others.

In her presentation, the Pan African Bar Association of South Africa’s legal practitioner, Salome Manganye, started her speech by noting a reference in a judgment that said: ‘If it was rightly answered in the court below, the result will be materially to widen the area of women’s economic activities, though that be done by opening to a host of new competitors the doors of an already congested profession.’

Ms Manganye added: ‘Already in 1912, the man sitting on the Bench sort to keep it here. It is what I call the “boogeyman syndrome” and what I say was said to effectively keep many women out of the profession and as I put it, the boogeyman syndrome is still alive.’

Johannesburg Attorneys’ Associations representative, Chantelle Gladwin-Wood; Women in Law Awards Co-founder, Morwesi Dlepu; General Council of the Bar representative, Lerato Mukome; Law Society of South Africa President, Eunice Masipa; and Legal Practice Council member, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu at the ceremonial sitting of the Johannesburg High Court to celebrate the centenary of women in law.

The Johannesburg Attorneys’ Association representative, Chantelle Gladwin-Wood, said the legal profession is celebrating the centenary of women permitted to practice law in SA, and it is undoubtedly a historic moment. However, she added that it must not be forgotten that over the past 100 years there have been other notable advancements in women’s rights, including the judgment relating to nevirapine, implementation of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998, implementation of the Civil Unions Act 17 of 2006 and various other judgments in recognition to rights of same sex couples and in relation to spouses in Muslim marriages. She pointed out that in each of these cases the fight was by a small group of people backed by those who believe in their cases.

Ms Gladwin-Wood pointed out that there is still much to be done to give fuller context to equality and rights of women, and not only in the legal profession but also in the context of the society at large. She said there is a study that reported that one in seven women do not have access to adequate sanitary products and miss school as a result, she added that another study suggests that girls in SA miss 10% to 25% of their schooling due to a lack of sanitary products. ‘This is compounded by our province’s lack of adequate water and sanitation infrastructure’. She pointed out that some studies show that 39% of LGBTQI+ persons have been verbally assaulted, 20% threatened with physical attacks, 17% chased or followed and 10% physically attacked, as the result of their sexual orientation. Ms Gladwin-Wood said colleagues should be more aware, more tolerant, and more compassionate in respect of persons who have suffered these prejudices. To also foster awareness with such issues, to shape the legal landscape relating to these issues.

The National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) representative, Nalini Maharaj said being a woman in the legal profession is difficult. She added that being a girl from a village, she had difficulties as an Indian. She pointed out that she had to bargain with her father and agree on marriage in order to go to varsity, however, she said they never got married. She added that she used her fight to join NADEL, and to use NADEL as a platform to tell women in the profession, that it is not about getting briefs, but it is about getting the work and knowing what to do with it. She pointed out that for her training is the skill. ‘We can cry all we want about our prejudices; it’s not going to change. What will change is our ability to change within ourselves and to say, “I do not care how complicated the matter is I can do this,”’ Ms Maharaj said. She pointed out that with training in the future, of the next 200 years, it should be about what are the trends out there and where to get the big money.

Representative from the General Council of the Bar’s, legal practitioner, , said that in a matter of the Incorporated Law Society v Wookey 1912 AD 623 the Appellant Division made refence to a book passage which stated: ‘Likewise, owing to the same natural peculiarity, it happens that, in as much as nearly the whole of womankind by reason of an inborn weakness is less suited for matters requiring knowledge and judgment than men, women are excluded from holding any office or dignity relating to the government of a people and its affairs’. She said that what the Appellant Division failed to see was that by setting women in the profession, the legal profession would produce trailblazing women lawyers who each day demonstrate their legal and professional capabilities, highlighting that they are as capable as any person to occupy the office required. ‘In my short career as an attorney, legal advisor, advocate, I got to know of and meet these women.

Ms Mukome said: ‘I know of a woman who is an anti-apartheid activist who opened a law firm with her husband to help marginalised communities, fight against unjust laws put in place by the Apartheid government. Who continued to run the practice following her husband’s brutal assassination. I know a woman who became the first female to be appointed the Judge President of the Supreme Court of South Africa and then Deputy Chief Justice. I know the woman who wakes up each day to don the black robes to fight unconstitutional laws in the highest courts, ensuring that the rights enshrined in our Constitution are protected and respected for all. I also know of a woman who is following her dreams of being an advocate, who each day sits in chambers and attends classes, knowing that excellence in her craft is the only way her practice will succeed and break previously held beliefs that women are incapable of being good advocates. I know of a woman who is in her first year of practice, who because of skewed briefing patterns, does not have work. However, even in such unfairness understand that capability and consistency will one day result in change and approve the longevity of women at the Bar.’

General Council of the Bar representative, Lerato Mukome; Desiree Finca’s son, Mr Mkele, and Law Society of South Africa President, Eunice Masipa.

In her speech, Co-director of the Women in Law Awards Leadership NPC, Laura Morwesi Dlepu said: ‘We commend Sonja Schlesin, Madeline Wookey, Frances Lyndall Schreiner, Irene Antoinette Geffen, Constance Mary Hall, Bertha Solomon, and Gladys Steyn who stood tall and took the first steps to having women recognised in the legal profession. We honour Olga Brink, Zainunnisa Gool, Desiree Finca, Navanethem Pillay, Lady Felicia Kentridge, Victoria Mxenge, and Leonora van den Heever for enduring through difficult times and forging further ahead to realise their dreams.

We celebrate Catherine O’Regan, Yvonne Mokgoro, Brigitte Mabandla, Lucy Mailula, Sisi Khampepe, Monica Leeuw, Thuli Madonsela, Shamila Batohi, and Mandisa Maya for championing the cause for women in the post-1994 dispensation and beyond.’ Ms Dlepu added that as SA celebrates 100 years, there is no doubt that these women and many others in the legal profession have made tremendous sacrifices. She pointed out that some have pushed barriers, others have shattered glass ceilings, while some have fought for the people’s rights, and others have laid down their lives.

Ms Dlepu said that even with great strides that have been made to bring women here, there is still so much more to look forward to and more work to be done. She said that more than half of SA’s population is female, and yet this is not reflected in most industries and professions. The legal profession is no exception. She added that women are not as well represented as they could be in the legal profession.

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