Women still do not have equal access to senior positions in the legal fraternity

October 13th, 2022

Members of South African Women Lawyers Association attending the Annual General Meeting in the organisation’s dresses.

The South African Women Lawyers Association (SAWLA) held the Victoria Mxenge Memorial Lecture and Annual General Meeting (AGM) from 9 to 10 September in Cape Town. The Victoria Mxenge Memorial Lecture was held on 9 September, and some members of the Mxenge family attended the lecture. Retired Constitutional Court Judge, Albie Sachs, gave the keynote address at the memorial. He shared the story of how he met Mrs Mxenge and her husband. He said that he met Mr Mxenge while he was working as a young legal practitioner in Durban. He described him as a vibrant, strong, thoughtful, and giving person. He pointed out that he knew of Mrs Mxenge through Mr Mxenge and added that Mr and Mrs Mxenge are an important part of history.

Justice Sachs told the family that he was happy to meet them, that Mr and Mrs Mxenge would be proud of them, as they have fought in the struggle for people to be able to become whoever they want to be, be it engineers, doctors, etcetera. He added that there are some people who would say nothing has changed in South Africa (SA). However, he said those people are wrong as there have been huge changes. He pointed out that the legacy of the freedom fighters is in the Constitution. He said that the Constitution was made by 490 people in the National Assembly elected by the people.

Retired Constitutional Court Judge, Albie Sachs, delivered a keynote address at the Memorial Lecture held in honour of the late struggle stalwart Victoria Mxenge at the South African Women Lawyers Association on 9 September 2022 in Cape Town.

Justice Sachs said that SA has the most gender aware people in the whole world. He also spoke about André Odendaal’s book Dear Comrade President: Oliver Tambo and the Foundations of South Africa’s Constitution (Johannesburg: Penguin Random House South Africa 2022) with an editorial contribution by himself. He added that the book has the story of struggle fighters such as Mr and Mrs Mxenge, Justice Dikgang Moseneke, the Black Lawyers Association (BLA) and other such bodies.

On 10 September, SAWLA held its AGM under the theme ‘How history has shaped our past, present and future as women leaders and lawmakers.’ The first speaker at the AGM, was SAWLA’s patron, Brigitte Mabandla, who said that legal practitioners have an important role in the transformation, reconstruction, and development of SA. She added that she was pleased that society has great confidence in the legal fraternity. She thanked the judges of SA for the jurisprudence they have generated. ‘I must say that we have to work hard, our people deserve a better life, we must build resilient communities. My dear sister, I employ you to be among the collective, that seeks solutions to our challenges. Let us make it happen, let it be freedom for our people’.

The Chairperson of the Legal Practice Council, Janine Myburgh, spoke at the South African Women Lawyers Association’s Annual General Meeting held in Cape Town.

Chairperson of the Legal Practice Council (LPC), Janine Myburgh, spoke at the SAWLA AGM. She thanked SAWLA for the continuous support and impact in the legal profession. She added that she was proud of the role that SAWLA plays in making a true difference for women within the legal profession. She also shared some of the recent highlights in the legal profession, which include the launching of the Legal Services Ombud, the Legal Sector Code of Good Practice, which is open for comment, as well as the launch of the SAWLA Student Chapter.

Ms Myburgh said that there are many women who will be remembered for their power and influence. She told the ladies of SAWLA that they are leaders. She reminded delegates of the strength of a woman, the strength of wisdom, the strength of a soft and gentle touch, and the strength of women’s bold and robust approach. She pointed out that each one of the women who are members of SAWLA form part of a critical element, not only of SAWLA, or in the legal profession, but in society and the country. She said that women are key to the success of the legal profession. Ms Myburgh said: ‘Do not be threatened of an achievement of a sister. Their achievement is your achievement’, adding that women are strong and should support each other.

Member of the South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges, Acting Deputy Judge President, Thoba Poyo-Dlwati said that it was time for SAWLA to reflect and take stock of the reasons why the co-founders of SAWLA saw it fit that SAWLA must exist alongside organisations such as the BLA and the National Association of Democratic Lawyers. She pointed out that SAWLA has gone a long way in ensuring that women, especial in the legal profession, are part of the decision-making bodies and policy dialogue. She congratulated Deputy Chief Justice Mandisa Maya for being the first women in the country to be appointed in that position. She said that her appointment brings hope and aspiration for women in the legal profession.

Delegates singing and dancing at the South African Women Lawyers Association Annual General Meeting.

Judge Poyo-Dlwati said that since the inception of the LPC, there has been more representation of women in the legal structures. She added that women in the legal profession have taken their rightful place at the table as part of decision-making. ‘I think the time has also come that we must not be only the part of the decision-making, but we must lead the decision-making.’ She said that her observation is that the legal profession has concentrated on transformation more than on race or gender. She added that the present is guided by the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nationsemands that SA shifts its focus. She said that sustainability requires gender equality by 2030. She pointed out that its mission statement stated the goal to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’.

Judge Poyo-Dlwati said that SAWLA must collaborate with other sister bodies to make sure equality is realised. ‘We must stop talking and start acting and demand that we be part of the table and we lead the table’.

Vice-President of the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), Eunice Masipa, delivered a message of support from the LSSA.

Vice-President of the Law Society of South Africa, Eunice Masipa, during her message of support said that if the profession wants to have quality future women leaders and lawmakers, they need to be intentional about it. She added that women are taught that they need to acclimatise to the legal profession if they want to make it. ‘What should rather be happening is for the legal profession to adjust and be accommodative of female legal practitioners. The profession should foster an environment where female legal practitioners are able to thrive and add value to society and the upkeep of the rule of law,’ Ms Masipa said.

Ms Masipa pointed out that many strides have been made in the transformation of the attorneys’ profession, but a whole lot more must be done to level the playing field for female legal practitioners. She said that at the end of January 2021 the demographics of attorneys in the country totalled 31 031, of which female legal practitioners were 13 394, whereas male legal practitioners were 17 637. The statistics show that female legal practitioners make up 43% of the legal profession. Although the percentage of female legal practitioners has increased compared to pre-1994 numbers, female legal practitioners still do not have the same access to opportunities as their male counterparts.

Ms Masipa said that what is important to note is that: ‘If we want to create an environment where female legal practitioners thrive, female legal practitioners need to be supportive of one another. We need to impart knowledge to the upcoming female legal practitioners to ensure that the future women leaders and lawmakers are at a standard that is deserving of South Africa. I would also like to plead to female legal practitioners to get rid of the “imposter syndrome” notion. Yes, women deserve to handle the big complex cases, we are more than capable to handle such cases.’

National Secretary of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL), Nolitha Jali, delivering a message of support on behalf of NADEL.

Secretary of National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL), Nolitha Jali, read a message from the President of NADEL, Mvuzo Notyesi. In his message of support, Mr Notyesi said he found the theme of the SAWLA’s AGM more befitting and appropriate as it calls for all to reflect on the past honestly and sincerely, while pondering on the future. He pointed out that once the theme refers to women leaders and lawmakers, the call is made to all revolutionaries and the masses to make a reflection on whether there is progress or not made in advancing transformation objectives. ‘In this regard I make reference to the preamble of our Constitution: We, the people of South Africa, recognise the injustices of our past, honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land, respect those who have worked and developed our country, and believe that South Africa belongs to all those who live in it, united in our diversity’.

Mr Notyesi wrote that the preamble sets the foundation, which is to heal the division of the past, and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice, and fundamental human rights. To improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person and build a united democratic SA. He added that the Constitution demands equality and to break away from the unjust past.

National Deputy Secretary General of the Black Lawyers Association (BLA), Ncumisa Sotenjwa, delivered a message of support from the BLA.

BLA’s National Deputy Secretary General, Ncumisa Sotenjwa, also gave a message of support on behalf of the president of her organisation, Bayethe Maswazi. She said that in the honour of great work done by women in the legal profession going back to the 1920s, SAWLA remains a relevant part of the legal profession and communities. She added that they have seen how SAWLA reaches out to the members of the community who have become destitute or victims of gender-based violence. She added that the BLA and SAWLA have common points of interest. She said that the BLA is confident that SAWLA will be discussing issues on women empowerment, to enable women to co-exist with men and be competitive in the legal profession.

Ms Sotenjwa added that SAWLA must spearhead conversation on dealing with challenges that young women in the legal profession face. ‘The BLA is passionate about the legacy of women in the legal profession and this legacy must be promoted, protected and we collectively must strive in ending the area of women marginalisation in the legal profession and promoting the transformation agenda.’ She said that women should not stop until change is seen.

Director-General of the Department of Justice, Doc Mashabane, spoke on behalf of the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola at the South African Women Lawyers Association Annual General Meeting.

Director-General of the Department of Justice, Doc Mashabane, spoke on behalf of the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola. He said that under the leadership of Mr Lamola, SAWLA is the brainchild of the former Minister of Justice, and they must continue taking it to greater heights. He spoke about the substantial discussion around the Constitution of SA with some thinking that it is a problem insofar as driving the transformation of the society. He said at the same time there have been some who have been in the forefront defending the Constitution. He added that with all the challenges that have been identify that speak to the Constitution, since 1996, the Constitution has been amended 17 times. He said that in many cases it is the judiciary that say a policy is inconsistent with the Constitution.

Mr Mashabane added that the government and even parliament has not led an aggressive programme for the development of the Constitution. ‘Our department is called Justice and Development, because the understanding then has always been that ours was not going to be a document cast in stone, but it was going to be a flexible document that was going to continue to adapt and be a tool that can be utilised to transform our society.’

Mr Mashabane said that in terms of the document being the framework, it is supposed to serve society and not hold the country hostage. ‘It is our responsibility to look at the parts of the Constitution and say, conditions have changed in the world, but also in the country and make a reflection that 25-years down the line despite its being held as the most progressive Constitution in the world, but to what extend has it changed the life of an ordinary person on the ground,’ he said.

From left: The Vice-President of the Law Society of South Africa, Eunice Masipa, with the President of the South African Women Lawyers Association, Nomaswazi Shabangu-Mndawe, and the organisation’s Fundraising Committee Chairperson, Nomahlubi Khwinana.

The Deputy Chief Justice, Mandisa Maya, was the keynote speaker at the SAWLA AGM. She said that long before any formal women organisation, women joined hands in the collective effort to effect change. She added that as early as 1913, Indian women encouraged black and Indian miners to strike because of their basic wages. She added that in 1913, black and coloured women in the Free State protested against carrying passes, which white women where not required to do.

Deputy Chief Justice Maya said that in September 2021 female students at Kabul University in Afghanistan protested the new education policy, which among other things seeks to enforce gender segregation in schools and universities. She added that the brave young women protested in major cities across Afghanistan and expanded their plight under the social media movement #DoNotTouchMyClothes where women around the world shared photos of themselves in traditional attire of their liking to protest the hard line polices imposed on them, which includes restrictions on clothes women may wear in 2022.

Deputy Chief Justice Maya said that the online protest by the young women is a heart-warming testament to the rise of a new weapon in the fight for gender equality. She added that the report by the United States Institute of Peace tells how women are increasingly turning to technology to advance gender equality. She pointed out that there are many obstacles that are confronting the achievement of gender equality. She pointed out that though the number of women in the legal profession is growing, women still do not have equal access to senior positions. She added that SA is fighting the increasing scourge of gender-based violence.

Deputy Chief Justice Maya also spoke about obstacles that women face currently. She said that according to the World Bank’s Women, Business, and the Law, 2022 report, around 2,4 billion women of working age live in countries where they are not afforded equal working opportunities as men. Additionally, 178 countries still have legal barriers, preventing full employment participation by women. She pointed out that the most shockingly one in three women experience gender-based violence in their lifetime.

Deputy Chief Justice Maya said that a report released in December 2021 by the Western Cape Branch of NADEL, in partnership with the Women’s Legal Centre, shows that by 2017 of the 2 915 advocates registered in the country’s 11 Bars, only 27% were women. She said this shows a continuing skewed briefing pattern, even by government, which is the biggest litigator, which has to bear the primary obligation to ensure that the women and especially black women legal practitioners also get a fair share of briefing patterns.

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

South African COVID-19 Coronavirus. Access the latest information on: www.sacoronavirus.co.za