Judge with character

Judge Leona Theron was interviewed for the vacant position on the Constitutional Court last week at the same time her judgement giving equal rights to women married under customary law in KwaZulu-Natal was confirmed by the country’s highest court.

The case involved Elizabeth Gumede who took her husband Amos to court in 2007 after their 40-year customary marriage ended. The property they accumulated belonged to her husband under customary laws specific to KwaZulu-Natal.

Theron ruled that women married under customary law in KwaZulu-Natal were effectively married in community of property—allowing divorcees and widows to inherit and claim property.

The Constitutional Court agreed with Theron last week and declared the relevant sections of legislation “inconsistent with the Constitution” and therefore invalid.

“Theron has shown a clear commitment to transformative justice,” says University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) law academic Davina Perumal, who added that the Gumede judgement shows the “richness” Theron brings to the Bench

“She really stands out as one of the judges who has been willing to take the bull by the horns,” says Perumal.

When she is not grabbing metaphorical horns, 42-year-old Theron engages in metaphors of another kind through her poetry writing. The mother of four is married to property developer Charles Sarjoo.

Appointed a judge in 1999 at the age of 33, Theron was the youngest person in that position in KwaZulu-Natal. She was an acting judge in the Eastern Cape in 1998. As a Fulbright scholar, she graduated with a master of laws degree from the University of Georgetown in the United States in 1990. She became an advocate in South Africa the following year.

While at university Theron worked part time as a cashier at the now defunct OK Bazaars in Umhlanga Rocks. She received both her bachelor of law and her bachelor of arts degrees from the then University of Natal.

Theron also sits on the board of the Durban Playhouse, is a trustee of the African Monitor and serves as an adviser to the Anglican Bishop of Natal. She is a board member of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at UKZN and the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Rehabilitation of Offenders.

Theron has won several awards including the department of justice’s Woman Achievement of the Year in 2000. She is a Commonwealth Foundation Fellow and is involved in community activities.

The ability to go against conventional wisdom is one of Theron’s strengths, Perumal says.

As evidence of this Perumal points to Theron’s dissenting judgement in the controversial case of Nhlahla Nkomo who had been sentenced to life for kidnapping and repeatedly raping a woman. Nkomo appealed the sentence with the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA). Theron, then an acting judge at the SCA, heard the appeal alongside another candidate for the Constitutional Court, Judge Edwin Cameron, and Judge Carole Lewis.

A two-one majority decision written by Lewis argued that “substantial and compelling” circumstances existed for the SCA to give Nkomo a lesser sentence. 

Theron disagreed and wrote a dissenting judgement.

“Against the backdrop of the unprece­dented spate of rapes in this country, courts must also be mindful of their duty to send out a clear message to potential rapists and to the community that they are determined to protect the equality, dignity and freedom of all women,” she said.

Theron has previously been interviewed for the position of deputy judge president of the Natal Provincial Division and a permanent post on the SCA.

On Friday the Judicial Service Commission will quiz Theron alongside judges Cameron, Eberhard Bertelsmann, Shenaz Meer and Nigel Willis for the single vacancy at the Constitutional Court.

Advocates for Transformation and the National Association of Democratic Lawyers nominated Theron for the position. “We believe she is a person of integrity with the necessary competence, energy and motivation who has demonstrated potential,” reads her letter of nomination from the association.

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