Scores of dignitaries on Friday assembled at a gala dinner hosted jointly by Unisa, the Department of Women, Youth and People with Disabilities (DWYPD) and the South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges (SAC-IAWJ) to celebrate 2022Women’s Month.
The event was held under the theme: “Empowerment as a Tool to Fight Gender-Based Violence (GBV) #Breaking Barriers and Bias”. In attendance were the esteemed local, international jurists, and high profile academics. They included, among others, Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, President Cyril Ramaphosa, minister of DWYPD Mrs Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, deputy chief-designate Justice Mandisa Maya, Unisa’s vice-chancellor, Professor Puleng LenkaBula, Advocate Mojanku Gumbi, chancellor of the University of Venda, and politician and former Chancellor of the Tshwane University of Technology.
First women jurists
The SAC-IAWJ also used the occasion to confer the ‘Women Pioneers in the Judiciary Award’ to Justice Maya for being the first woman jurist to be appointed as the South African deputy chief justice. Former president of the SAC-IAWJ, and Supreme Court of Appeal Judge, Justice Baratang Mocumie conferred the award to Justice Maya. President Ramaphosa delivered the keynote address while the renowned Dr Bishop Jessica Mbangeni enthralled the audience with poem dedicated to Justice Maya.
During her opening address, Justice Maya told the luminaries that the mission of the SAC-IAWJ is to promote and empower women judges who are good at tackling discriminatory laws, and advancing gender responsive and human rights causes. She said: “When tacking societal issues such as unemployment, cost of living, malnutrition, alcohol abuse and mental health, we need to be mindful that the protection and economic disadvantages of women require urgent attention.”
Addressing the root cause of GBV
Maya said GBV cases continue to increase even though South Africa boasts some of the progressive laws against discrimination and violence. She also observed that institutions such as DWYPD, formed specifically to tackle discrimination against women, youth and the disabled, are poorly under-funded, adding this limit the impact it is supposed to make in the society. “The root of the GBV scourge must be dug out and destroyed. This requires us to move to a new paradigm of thinking and of doing things, and to reassess and refine our strategies with the involvement of the society,” said Justice Maya.
Agitating for change
In welcoming the guests, Professor LenkaBula expressed Unisa’s excitement and pride in hosting the gala dinner during Women’s Month. “Unisa proudly provides an important resource of shaping futures,” said Professor LenkaBula, adding “The members of the SAC-IAWJ are a testament of the resilience and commitment of women to ensure that despite the real and imaginary impediments around women’s dignity, we constantly agitate for change.” She said universities should not be elitist institutions that provide knowledge but they should also be responsive to challenges facing society.
“Our laws have been based on western traditions and civilisation for a long time. As universities, we are exploring how we can Africanise our knowledge systems and ensure that the best of Africa’s civilisation, legislative systems, philosophies and technologies become the rallying point in overcoming GBV, gender injustices, and inequality in our country and continent,” Professor LenkaBula.
Courage and resilience
Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola, introduced Ramaphosa saying the president is committed to transformation including transformation of gender in the South African judiciary. An alumnus of Unisa himself, President Ramaphosa said: “We remember the courage and resilience of women 66 years ago, who took on the might of the apartheid regime to demand an end to the degrading and dehumanising laws that were used against them.” He said South African is making steady progress in promoting African women to top positions in both government and the judiciary, adding he would continue to empower women in the sectors of the state.
The face of legal profession is women
President Ramaphosa shared some of the appointments his administration has made so far to transform the country’s legal profession. He said currently out of 256 judges on the Bench, 114 are women, adding nearly half of all magistrates are women. “This administration has demonstrated its determination to build on this progress. In 2019, Advocate Shamila Batohi became the first woman to head the National Prosecuting Authority. In 2021, Ms Phindile Baleni became the first female Director-General in the Presidency. In 2022, Ms Thembisile Majola became the first Director-General of the State Security Agency,” said President Ramaphosa. Also this year, less than a week ago, Lt Gen Tebello Mosikili became the first female Deputy National Commissioner of the South African Police Service, added the president.
Inspiration to other women
He congratulated Justice Maya, saying: “You are where you are because of your capability. You are an inspiration to women in the judiciary, and to the young and old generations. It is a richly deserved honour and yet another milestone in a stellar career.” He said women jurists overcame incredible odds ranging from discrimination, sexism, and racism. President Ramaphosa said he is encouraged to see the growing number of young women entering the legal profession.
“The oppression of women is a global problem. GBV is a pandemic that must be discontinued as it is holding us back from advancing the rights of women,” said President Ramaphosa. He concluded his address by saying “No society can claim to be non-sexist when their women live in fear,” and called on men, state and civil society organisations to defend and respect the rights of women.