MPs pay tribute to SA women in legal profession

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Members of the National Assembly have paid tribute to women in the legal profession as this year marks 100 years since they were allowed to practice.

A special debate was held by MPs to commemorate the centenary. However, the debate also looked at how female legal practitioners continue to face discrimination in the current legal system in South Africa.

Women were only admitted to the profession in 1923 with the introduction of the Woman Legal Practitioners Act.

Opening the debate, Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffery says tribute should be paid to many women who pioneered and championed the way for other women attorneys and advocates.

“We honour and pay tribute to those like Sonja Schlesin, Madeline Wookey, Irene Geffen, Constance Hall, Gladys Steyn, Cissie Gool, Desire Finca, Victoria Mxenge, Lucy Mailula, Leonora van den Heever, Yvonne Mokgoro, Kate O Regan and many others. Women in the legal profession have faced a long and ongoing struggle. The first woman who tried to be admitted as an attorney is Sonja Schlesin who did her articles with Mahatma Ghandi. In Schlesin vs Incorporated Law Society in 1909, the Transvaal Supreme Court held that the word attorney mean men. Not only was Miss Schlesin’s application unsuccessful but she was made to pay the law society its costs, ” he says.

Jeffery also highlighted one example of how women were prevented to become legal practitioners.

“In 1918, South Africa in law journal of the then former Chief Justice of the Orange Free State Melius de Villiers said and I quote, ‘it’s absolutely undesirable that women should be allowed to become practicing members of the legal profession.’ He argued that women allowed to practice is a revolt against nature and incompatible with the duty of motherhood. Fortunately, five years later in 1923, a law that allowed women to be legal practitioners was gazetted. The gazette stated that his royal highness the Governor-General has been pleased to assent to the women legal practitioner Act 7 of 1923 which provided in section 1 that women will be entitled to practice and enrolled as advocates, attorneys, notaries, public or conveyances subject to the same terms and conditions as applied to men.”

Victimisation of women

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MP Yolisa Yako says the victimisation of women in the profession has not stopped even a hundred years later.

“We frequently hear about cases of women in the legal profession who become victimised while trying to establish a foothold. In a country with progressive laws and policies such as the three recently passed GBV Bills, one would presume that women in law would be instrumental in overseeing these courts, but this is not the case.”

Inkatha Freedom Party’s  (FP) Zandile Majozi says female legal practitioners continue to face gender discrimination.

“We ought to acknowledge that barriers such as financial access or rather the lack thereof still stand in the way of the attainment of admission in the legal profession for most women. Even though on paper women are presented with the same legal opportunities as their male counterparts, it is an open secret that women tend to receive smaller in terms of the volume and quality of the legal brief which further perpetuates gender discrimination.”

The African National Congress’s (ANC) Anthea Ramolobeng noted a recent landmark judgment that overturned two discriminatory judgments against two women lawyers more than a hundred years ago.

“A ceremonial court sitting was held on the 25th of April 2023 and Gauteng Judge President Dustan Mlambo overturned two judgments which were issued in 1909 and 1912, which barred women from entering the profession. Judge President Mlambo declared that the two women in those cases had been admitted to the legal fraternity.”

Al Jama ah leader Ganief Hendricks says one of the women to be celebrated includes Deputy Chief Justice Mandisa Maya.

“With regard to the 100th commemoration and admission of women to the legal profession, honourable chair a lot of progress has been made in South Africas and I refer to the appointment of Justice Madisa Maya as the country’s first woman deputy chief Justice. I think we need to celebrate that. However, women are still being discriminated. And unfortunately, the Department of Justice is at the forefront of discrimination. They still don’t give indigent woman transport costs to come to maintenance costs, but they give it to men.”

Good Party Chief Whip Brett Herron who is a lawyer, paid tribute to among others, academic and lawyer Dr Navi Pillay.

” As a lawyer, I am grateful to honour the exceptional lawyers and the politician that I am today. I have been Blessed and privileged and I’m grateful that in my journey to become a lawyer, I have been taught and practiced with the most inspiring women. And I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge one of those women. Dr Navi Pillay, a woman and a lawyer who had a massive impact on my life and the path that followed to get to where I stand here today.”

Desiree Finca

The African Independent Congress’s (AIC) Steven Jafta reflected on when the first female Black lawyer Desiree Finca was admitted to practice.

“It was not surprising that in 1967, 44 years after the promulgation of the said Act, the first Black woman was admitted as an attorney. 44 years is not a long time if one considers the far-reaching implications of the 1948 installation of the apartheid rule. The dual sins of Racism and Gender inequality meant that Desiree Finca would only be enrolled as an attorney in 1967. Surprisingly the quest for Gender Equality in the legal profession is still a thorny issue, 100 years after the installation of the Legal Practitioners Act.”

The FF Plus’s Heloise Denner questioned why the current government failed to ensure that women legal practitioners enjoy the same equality as their male counterparts.

“The Woman’s Legal Practitioners Act from 1923 succinctly states that women shall be entitled to be admitted to practice and to be involved as advocates, attorneys, notaries, public or conveyances subject to the same terms and conditions as applied to men, and any law regulating that mission or enrolment of persons as advocates, attorneys, notaries, public or conveyances shall henceforth be interpreted accordingly. If an Act from 1923 can get equality right, why can’t the ANC government.”

The Democratic Alliance’s (DA) Michael Bagraim also touched on equality in the legal profession.

“Today it can be said that the legal profession is truly equal between men and women. However, it was George Bernard Shaw who said we learn from experience that men never learn from experience. We still got a problem.”

The African Christian Democratic Party’s (ACDP) Steve Swart and the NFP’s Ahmed Shaik-Emam also made their voices heard during the debate.

“Although the percentage of female legal practitioners has increased dramatically compared to pre-1994 numbers, many sadly still do not have access to the same opportunities as their male counterparts.”

National Freedom Party (NFP) Parliamentary Leader Ahmed Shaik- Emam says, ” There is no doubt about it that we have made strides successful strides in dealing with the discrimination our women faced many years ago. And whilst our women faced discrimination because they were women, today they continue to face discrimination because of the patriarchal society that we’re living in. And I know many of us will come here today and tell you how much we love our women and how much we respect them. But let’s get back to the home and see if that’s the case. And clearly, it is not.”