The issue of women participation stressed at SAWLA AGM

November 12th, 2021

By Kgomotso Ramotsho

The South African Women Lawyers Association (SAWLA) held its Annual General Meeting (AGM) in September 2021. Former Legal Practice Council (LPC) Chairperson, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu, at the AGM said that the organisation conveys the message of support to SAWLA. She added that one of the LPC’s mandates, as a regulatory body, is to transform the legal profession, by ensuring that women occupy positions. She pointed out that 2021 marks 15 years since the establishment of SAWLA, and she is happy the organisation has grown from strength to strength. She said that SAWLA is an organisation of like-minded women, who are concerned about the advancement of women in the legal profession. Ms Matolo-Dlepu said that SAWLA must maintain that women be in leadership positions.

Former President and member of the South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges (SAC-IAWJ), Judge Shane Kgoele, read a message of support to SAWLA from SAC-IAWJ, which was written by the President of SAC-IAWJ and President of the Supreme Court of Appeal, Justice Mandisa Maya, who commended SAWLA for having been able to go ahead and host its AGM during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also took note of the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has mostly affected women as it aggravated the challenges that women face, such as discrimination, gender-based violence, unemployment, and poverty, among others.

While reading the letter from SAC-IAWJ, Ms Kgoele pointed out that it is difficult for women to admit that there is generally no work for women. She said women constitute the majority of society but when it comes to participating in leadership roles in law firms, the number suddenly drops dramatically. Women are not given an opportunity to participate or given quality work, they are undermined and second-guessed. Women are asked questions, such as whether they will be able to sustain work while being mothers, or if they will be able to control their emotions. Ms Kgoele added that women must work twice as hard to prove themselves. She pointed out that the key to fixing these challenges is through diversity and inclusivity for the benefit of society.

Ms Kgoele said it cannot be advocated enough that transforming the legal profession to include women meaningfully will enable the justice system to respond effectively to the need of the majority of the population, which are women. That allowing women to be included meaningfully in the running of institutions makes for a strong, stable and prosperous country. Failure to allow women to participate meaningfully in the legal profession and judiciary impacts negatively in the transformation of the judiciary and the rule of law.

Director-General in the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, advocate Mikateko Maluleke, spoke on behalf of Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane at the AGM. She started the speech by quoting the Beijing Platform for Action which states: ‘Without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women’s perspective at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality … cannot be achieved.’ Access to justice cannot be realised if women in the legal profession and the judiciary do not participate meaningfully. She pointed out that the context in which SAWLA is gathered is a difficult one as the fight for survival in the global COVID-19 pandemic continues.

In the letter Ms Nkoana-Mashabane said that she joined and supported SAWLA as it commemorates the life of the liberation struggle, heroine Victoria Mxenge, who together with her husband paid the ultimate price for defending the rights of oppressed South Africans to live in conditions of freedom, justice, peace and democracy. She added that South Africa (SA) has a world celebrated Constitution that incorporates the Bill of Rights of the blood of many South Africans who sacrificed their lives for a better SA for all. She said this should be the reason why all South Africans must guard democracy with their lives because it was bought with priceless blood of SA women and men.

In her letter, Ms Nkoana-Mashabane pointed out that the United Nations initiated ‘generation equality’, which means there is less than nine years to achieve the gender-equality goal. ‘It means from today we have to do things differently,’ Ms Maluleke read. She pointed out that although there are laws and policies to advance women’s rights and gender-equality, women continue to be disproportionately affected by poverty, unemployment, hunger, and inequality, adding that women continue to experience gender-based violence and are excluded from the mainstream economic decisions and financial decisions as women tend to earn less than their male counterparts.

Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola, in his speech said he was honoured to gather among the elite and influential group of women in the society. He added that the AGM gathered in a year in which South Africa (SA), celebrates 150 years of the late struggle stalwart, Charlotte Maxeke. He said many in the AGM without a doubt embodied the characteristics of Ms Maxeke.

Mr Lamola said in what Ms Maxeke called ‘the primitive state of South African Natives’, she not only criticised the custom of lobola, but also the inequality that prevailed as a consequence of one of the hallmarks of customary law. He added that while acknowledging the negative impact of dowry, Ms Maxeke was quick to place the practices associated with traditional marriages in their proper context by asserting that in olden days, traditional customs had a great effect in shaping the conduct of women.

Mr Lamola quoted Ms Maxeke when she said, ‘owing no doubt to the practice of paying fixed value for a wife, men considered women their inferiors, their property and children, not being allowed equal opportunity with men, and being kept down, and their progress was hindered.’ Mr Lamola pointed out that it is against this background that the likes of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, an intellectual giant of the 20th century, regarded Ms Maxeke as a pioneer in one of the greatest human causes. ‘You, just like Maxeke, are pioneers and in a sense, you represent a new era in society. Of course, as we gather in this room, our collective task is to ensure that within a shorter space of time, we achieve what Maxeke fought hard for,’ Mr Lamola said.

Mr Lamola added that SA celebrates the 26th anniversary of the South African Constitution, a document President Cyril Ramaphosa characterised as the birth certificate of SA. From this document, the foundations for a new SA were constructed, he said. The SA in which Ms Maxeke lived, can be dismantled by the ability of SA people by making the Constitution a living document. He added that the Constitution in its truest sense, could be the lodestar that helps dismantle racism and patriarchy. ‘I say racism and patriarchy because we seem to have taken an approach in our activism that in configuring a just society, we ought to deal with racism and inequality outside the struggle for gender equality,’ Mr Lamola said.

Mr Lamola pointed out that the three Gender-Based Violence Bills, which are imminent from parliament, will assist SA to ensure that the criminal justice system is more victim centric. ‘These are very critical improvements, which we must implement to the latter,’ Mr Lamola added. Mr Lamola also touched on the impact of COVID-19 in the existing structural problems in the legal profession particularly faced by women. That legal practitioners have had to adjust their operations across the board. He said that the challenges were highlighted by the Transformation of the Legal Profession project conducted by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies in partnership with the Foundation of Human Rights.

He said in the observation of the two above mentioned organisations they included –

  • a shortage of jobs and few connections to established members of the profession;
  • offers from the corporate sector, which cannot be matched by the legal profession;
  • cultural alienation;
  • bias based on historic roles of black women;
  • racism;
  • sexual harassment;
  • briefing patterns;
  • behaviour based on gendered roles;
  • lack of childcare facilities; and
  • the trailblazer phenomenon.

Mr Lamola, however, pointed out that to mitigate some of these challenges, he has appointed the Solicitor General with a clear mandate to implement the provisions of the State Attorney Amendment Act 13 of 2014. He added that all the policies; envisaged in the State Attorneys Amendment Act, are envisaged for tabling before the end of the 2021 financial year. Mr Lamola also assured the attendees of the AGM that the Legal Sector Code will help in knowing how many briefing patterns were issued and who they were issued to. He pointed out that the person who will be monitoring the briefing patterns will also ensure that there is compliance and where there is a failure of compliance the code is clear as to what should be done.

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