Women on the road of feminism and creating a just society

September 1st, 2020

By Kgomotso Ramotsho

The South African Women Lawyers Association (SAWLA) celebrated National Women’s Day on 8 August with a virtual gathering. The theme of the event was: ‘Gender equality is a right not a female right.’ University of Venda Chancellor, advocate Mojankunyane Gumbi, started her speech by acknowledging two women, namely social activist, Dr Brigalia Bam, who she described as an outstanding leader and Ambassador Brigitte Mabandla, one of the founding members of SAWLA, who Ms Gumbi said South Africans should pay respect to for her role in the researching and drafting of the Constitution. She added that former President Thabo Mbeki told her how hard Ms Mabandla had worked in assisting with putting the Constitution together, although most people only remember the men who are associated with writing the Constitution.

Ms Gumbi spoke about ‘Substantive equality: Legal concept’ and said that for any country to obtain substantive equality it should be looked at it in a legal manner. She added that substantive equality is a matter that deals with issues of society and issues of the political system. She gave an example that when the new democratic government was elected in 1994, there was a system where only the white, coloured and Indian racial groups received child social grants and the African children were excluded.

Ms Gumbi said when the government came into office it was clear that the past system could not continue as it was excluding the majority of children from the child grant system. She pointed out that at the time the problem raised was that if the excluded children were to receive social grants, it would mean that the amount of money that was set aside for such grants was not sufficient. She added that it meant the social grants that were received by the inclusive group of children had to be reduced to accommodate everyone.

Ms Gumbi said although this measure was unequal it was necessary in order to deal with inequalities of the past. She said it was a social measure that was meant to result in a substantively equal country. She said that if one looked at the Constitution, it does not state that judges must be people who have a legal or judicial background. She pointed out that the Constitution states that the President would appoint Judicial Officers that largely reflect the nature of the South African society through the Judicial Service Commission.

Ms Gumbi said she regrets that SA has moved away from turning the Constitutional Court (CC) into an equality court. She pointed out that the CC has been reduced to a regular court. She said there is no excuse why a person of Dr Bam’s stature should not have served at the CC, because the CC deals with issues of equality.

In closing, Ms Gumbi spoke about the double standard in politics across the world, she gave an example of how women are often talked about or criticised for how they are dressed. She said women would be told that what they are wearing is inappropriate, as it ‘reveals their curves’. She pointed out that women must stand up and call out critics for body shaming and those who attack the intellect of women, as it is a denial of substantive equality.

In a question and answer session, one of the questions Ms Gumbi was asked was how female legal practitioners balance their advocacy for women’s rights and obtaining substantive equality with a career that involves, for example, representing men in maintenance matters and criminal matters involving women. Ms Gumbi responded by saying that as a legal practitioner one must remain professional. She said that she once represented a man on a rape charge in the High Court after he was convicted in the lower court. She said that at the time she was practicing as an advocate and with a female attorney assisting on the case, when they read the record, it was clear that the court had misdirected itself. She said the fact that the client was a man did not mean that he had to be condemned for the rest of his life for something that he had not done. She pointed out that in the first instance, one is a legal practitioner and the duty is to uphold the law.

Dr Bam, first started by acknowledging Ms Gumbi for her role in the establishment of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, which is intended to train the people of Africa in finding ways of transforming the African continent. She added that in addition to that programme was the establishment of a library, which she described as a pride not only for SA, but for the whole African continent. She pointed out that Ms Gumbi had been one of the visionaries behind the project.

Dr Bam told the attendees that the current generation is the older generation’s hope for change. She said today’s generation is coming in at a particular time in history and it is time for the women in this generation to take things forward and organise themselves for this important challenge. She pointed out that for those in her generation it was important to say they have celebrated the first female legal practitioner. She also shared that when her generation celebrated the group of the first female legal practitioners, at the same time in Switzerland the women were not even allowed to vote.

Dr Bam pointed out that the media in SA is still free and outspoken and so is civil society. ‘And we are learning to live with one another and with the changes that are there on us, that our own diversity to us is a challenge. I want to say that your parents and grandparents are people who we also owe a lot to, because their generation that was very blessed, people who witnessed the change. They were the midwives of the transition in this country, the people who brought this democracy and many of them may not be known and many of them, especially women, we never acknowledge because of the way things were and the patriarchy that has been with us for a very long time,’ Dr Bam said.

Dr Bam also complimented SAWLA and said the opportunities that SAWLA has created for dialogue,  such as their National Women’s Day celebration, was very important, however, she said that women need a bit more, they need opportunities in the way of ‘deep encounters’. Encounters where women do not just speak about themselves or their professions, but where they are able to explore and continue the dialogue and see how in addition to all the things that women do, they can heal society. She added that there is also a need for counselling among women and also to strengthen each other on what she called the ‘core human values’ because there is always a transition and challenge on ‘general values of society’. She pointed out that the biggest responsibility for women is to always remember that they are on the road of feminism, but also on a road of creating a just society.

One of the questions that was posed to Dr Bam was what can be done to stop young women from being exploited in the name of needing fancy lifestyles, from older man or ‘sugar daddies’. Responding to the question she said an organisation of support must be put in place to offer support to young women to address such matters, especially at universities where a number of young women are lonely and are thrown into a competitive environment.

Dr Amaleya Goneos-Malka from the gender-based talk radio programme ‘Womanity – Women in Unity’, spoke about the ‘journey to equality’ and said there has to be a point where gender-based violence is not taken for granted. She added that in order for that to happen, women have to make it a female fight. She paid homage to the women of 1956 who marched to the Union Buildings and said not only did they march, but they presented a petition to then Prime Minister, Johannes Gerhardus Strijdom, on the matter of carrying passes. She pointed out that to her that was a clear strategy with tactics. She added that if she were born a 100 years ago, she would not have been able to vote or have a career, the odds would be extremely low of her earning a decent salary or being educated.

Dr Goneos-Malka said while in discussion with other women she discovered that in a country such as Kenya, women could not confer their nationality on their children, only men were allowed to do so. She pointed out that even when women have come a long way, they have not made it yet. She gave an example of how only 25% of political seats in Parliament are held by women and that globally 25% of women are likely to be exposed to poverty.

Dr Goneos-Malka said that from a political point of view, women who serve in leading roles in government serve as an inspiration for other women, and that suitable gender representation is important in policy development, as well as policy implementation. She added that in SA women are paid 23% less than their male counterparts and most women are positioned in low skilled positions. According to the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa, of the companies that were listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) in 2017, only 4,7% had female Chief Executive Officers. Dr Goneos-Malka asked when will there be gender parity?

Dr Goneos-Malka encouraged female attendees to take up spaces, and not just sit at the table. She pointed out that women should make their own tables, choose new innovative paths and if women are sitting at these tables they must not just be participants but must raise their hands to be seen and make sure to assist and promote one another.

After Dr Genoes-Malka’s presentation, a female candidate legal practitioner commented and agreed that women should empower each other and not just sit at the table, the candidate legal practitioner further said that she was rooting for opportunities from women who are already seated at the table.

Legal practitioner, part-time member of the Companies Tribunal, member of the Law Society of South Africa’s House of Constituents and Deputy Chairperson of the Black Lawyers Association Legal Education Centre Board of Trustees, Matshego Ramagaga, presented a topic on ‘A fraternity in perversely literal sense’. She said that despite the good intention and tight application of the law by government, the issue of gender parity continues to enroot female legal practitioners. She went on to define the origin of the word fraternity and pointed out that in a Latin phrase ‘fraternity’ is associated with brotherhood and societies or clubs associated with men.

Ms Ramagaga said that in order to understand the nature of the profession, a step must be taken to examine the history of the legal profession, and in particular to focus on the development of the profession in relation to gender. She pointed out the women did not just enter the legal profession, but had to knock and fight before they could enter into this field. She mentioned that in 1909 there was an application to have a woman registered for articles of clerkship in order to be admitted as an attorney (Schlesin v Incorporated Law Society 1909 TS 363) (see also Patrick Bracher ‘The slow rise of women in the legal profession’ 2020 (Sept) DR 14).

Ms Ramagaga said ultimately the court then said the definition of the person in terms of the Attorneys Act back then, did not include a woman, so she could not be admitted as an attorney. Again in 1912, a case came before the court on whether a woman could be admitted as an attorney in the legal profession or not (Wookey v Incorporated Law Society 1912 CPD 263). Ms Ramagaga pointed out that the first Act that allowed women to enter the legal profession was the Women Legal Practitioners Act 7 of 1923, which ushered in a new era for women.

Ms Ramagaga said the barriers in the legal profession have always been there. She mentioned various legal associations such as the Black Lawyers Association, the National Democratic Lawyers Association and the Society of Advocates. Ms Ramagaga pointed out that in the various associations mentioned there is a desk in place to deal with the interests of women in the profession, however, she said it is clear that it was necessary that the women in the legal profession establish their own association, namely, SAWLA, which has focussed on the interests of women as the other associations have a mixture of interests that they are looking into. She said SAWLA needed to look at whether there is a justification for their association in the legal fraternity, or whether they are on their own.

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