Sisters on the bench

Director Jane Lipman couldn’t have wished for a better time to launch her thought-provoking documentary on the lives of South African women judges.

The judiciary is in the eye of a perfect storm with the latest round of allegations against Cape Judge President John Hlophe. He allegedly tried to exercise undue pressure on Constitutional Court judges Bess Nkabinde and Chris Jafta in favour of ANC president Jacob Zuma’s case.

The court’s complaint to the Judicial Services Commission last week revealed that it was the brave actions of two women judges, Nkabinde and Judge Yvonne Mokgoro, that lead to the charges being laid against Hlophe.

Nkabinde wasn’t prepared to keep quiet about Hlophe’s alleged transgressions of all that is right and spilled the beans to Mokgoro, who persuaded her to inform the Chief Justice Pius Langa of what had happened.

Nkabinde and Mokgoro are just two of the ‘stars” of Courting Justice, a behind-the-scenes look at the thankless and often lonely work of women judges in a profession still dominated by men.

This year only 18% of the country’s more than 200 judges are women. Only one of them, Deputy Judge President Jeanette Traverso of the Cape, holds a leadership position on the Bench. She describes this as a ‘disgrace” and ‘tragic”.

Courting Justice takes viewers into the judges’ chambers, kitchens, homes and hearts. Without exception, all of them are in it for the cause despite huge sacrifices on a personal and professional level. ‘Judges are first human beings. So their values as human beings affect the way they decide cases,” says Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) Judge Mandisa Maya as she drives ‘home” to Tsolo in the old Transkei.

It is here where she touches base with her people. She sings with the women of Tsolo, assists in the preparation of food and sits in on a hearing of the village’s traditional court.

‘My rural background is what defines me — as a person, as a woman, as a mother and as a wife. I’m a very traditional girl. I’m rural to the core,” says the judge who is one of only three women judges on the SCA. And yes, she admits, it is necessary for the three of them to stay close ‘for survival”.

The film shows Judge Belinda van Heerden and Maya tightening each other’s collars and gowns before they go into court.

On her very first day at the SCA, Maya was refused entrance to the courtroom by a gardener who thought she was lost. ‘It took a lot of persuading to get me in!” she remembers.

And what about her mainly male and pale colleagues in Bloemfontein? ‘There are those who ignored me and showed in subtle and not so subtle ways I had no place in being here.”

Cape Judge Pat Goliath echoes Maya’s notion that her background as a woman being raised in poverty brings unique qualities and experience to a male-dominated Bench.

‘When you weigh up the evidence, it is not only about the law; it’s also about your background and the experiences you’ve had.”

Johannesburg Judge Mathilde Masipa believes that the changing profile of the Bench is increasing the legitimacy of the court. ‘In the past, people would stay away from the court and rather sort things out themselves. Now they see black people and women on the Bench and they say maybe, if you want justice, the high court is where you go.”

Traverso encapsulates some of the problems women judges face: ‘You have to establish yourself. It is a cruel world out there. It is a man’s world. They don’t understand that you have to take time off to be with your children — you don’t get the opportunity to make female friends.”

Cape Judge Tandazwa Ndita is a single parent and struggles to make time for her three daughters, but remains convinced that the task is ‘doable”.

Mokgoro believes that despite the numerous challenges, she and her sisters on the Bench are in the process of achieving the dream of a transformed legal profession.

The film shows at the Encounters Documentary Festival. For programme details go to

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