Book of SA Women: Judges
In this section: Kate O’Regan, Jeanette Traverso and more.
Sisi KhampepeJohannesburg High Court
Tel: +27 11 332 8162
South Gauteng High Court Judge Sisi Khampepe was first thrust into the spotlight when former president Thabo Mbeki appointed her to head up a commission of inquiry into whether the directorate of special operations (DSO), or Scorpions, should remain under the justice ministry or be absorbed by the police. It was an arduous task at the time for any judge, given the hot political potato the mandate of the Scorpions had become, after investigating such high profile politicians such as President Jacob Zuma and justice and constitutional development committee chair Ngoako Ramatlhodi.
Khampepe, however, earned the praise of many by taking a principled line in her report to the president when she defended the DSO’s prosecutorial independence and confirmed that the troika model adopted by the Scorpions was sound.
Khampepe holds an LLM from Harvard University and has a BProc from the University of Zululand. She was admitted as an attorney in 1985 and worked as fellow at the Legal Resource Centre before doing her articles with Bowman Gilfillian Attorneys. Khampepe has served on the appeal tribunal for electoral disputes and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee where she also sat on the Amnesty Committee. Khampepe was appointed to the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg in 2002 and in 2007 was appointed to the Labour Appeal Court.
Carole LewisSupreme Court of Appeal
Tel: +27 51 447 2631
Last October Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) Judge Carole Lewis felt the ire of the Black Lawyers Association (BLA) after giving a frank talk on the state of the South African judiciary at the Institute of Race Relations. Lewis insisted that politicians respect the judiciary and that appointments to the Bench should be based on merit. The BLA reported Lewis to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), charging that she had undermined black judges. Lewis has been on the SCA Bench for the last six years. A former dean of the law faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand, Lewis matriculated at Hyde Park High School in Johannesburg before moving to Wits, where she obtained a BA in law and Latin in 1973 and, two years later, an LLB. This was followed, 12 years later, by an LLM. Lewis was admitted as an attorney in 1978, the same year she joined the Wits Law School as a lecturer, and rose within the ranks to eventually become a professor of law. The deputy chair of the Wits Council, she was first appointed to the South Gauteng High Court Bench in 199, after acting stints in the same court and the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria.
Mandisa MayaSupreme Court of Appeal
Tel: +27 51 447 2631
Judge Mandisa Maya has served on the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) since 2005. She hails from the Eastern Cape town of Viedgesville and has been on the Bench since 1999, serving an acting stint on the Western Cape Bench, as a judge on the Labour Court and as a judge of appeal in Namibia. She attended the prestigious Eastern Cape-based St John’s College before proceeding to the then University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University) for her BProc degree in 1986. Two years later she completed her LLB at the University of Natal before attending Duke University for her LLM on a Fulbright scholarship. Maya, who also did some legal work in Washington DC in the United States, did her pupillage at the Johannesburg Bar and practiced as an advocate at the Transkei Bar. She has also been a fellow at Georgetown University in the United States. She is the current deputy president of the International Association for Women Judges-South African Chapter and has previously been Commonwealth Foundation Fellow.
Yasmin Shenaz MeerLand Claims Court and Cape High Court
Tel: +27 21 480 2540
Judge Yasmin Shenaz Meer is a former director of the Legal Resources Centre and has been recommended for the Constitutional Court in the past. The daughter of sociologist and activist Fatima Meer, Meer first cut her teeth in the legal industry as an articled clerk in the law firm of late justice minister Dullah Omar. In 2003, after nine candidates for two Constitutional Court seats had been interviewed, Meer was one of five judges whose names were sent to then-president Thabo Mbeki for consideration. She holds a master of law degree from Warwick University and has a long history of community involvement and human rights litigation. She has served on the Land Claims Court since 1996 and was appointed to the Cape High Court in 2003.
Nonkosi MhlantlaSupreme Court of Appeal
The second of two female appointments to be made by former president Kgalema Motlanthe on to the Supreme Court of Appeal this year, Judge Nonkosi Mhlantla hails from the Eastern Cape town of Port Elizabeth.
She attended school in Kwa-Thema Springs at Kenneth Masekela High School and went on to the University of the North where she completed her BProc degree in 1987. She was appointed to the high court in the Eastern Cape in June 2002 after running her own legal firm for many years. She previously had acting stints on the Bench of the same court before taking up a permanent position.
Yvonne MokgoroConstitutional Court
Tel: +27 11 359 7400
A little nudging from the late Pan African Congress (PAC) stalwart Robert Sobukwe is all it took for Constitutional Court Judge Yvonne Mokgoro to venture into the legal field after she had spent a night in jail for standing up for a group of men in Galeshewe who were harassed by apartheid era policemen. She ended up studying law through the University of Bophuthatswana and ivy league Pennsylvania University in the United States. Mokgoro worked in various roles within the legal justice system of the then-Bophuthatswana before assuming an associate professorship in 1992 at the University of Western Cape. She later served as a human-rights specialist researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council. After an intense public interviewing process Mokgoro, in 1994, was appointed by president Nelson Mandela as one of 11 founding judges of the highest court in the land on Constitutional matters. After 15 years on the bench of the Constitutional Court Mokgoro will retire in October. She will be remembered as one of the judges who contributed immensely to South Africa’s first body of Constitutional jurisprudence.
Baaitse-Mmono NkabindeConstitutional Court
Tel: +27 11 359 7400
Judge Baaitse-Mmono “Bess” Nkabinde, born a Batlokwa princess in Silwerkrans in North West, was appointed to the Constitutional Court by President Thabo Mbeki in 2005. She completed her matric at Mariasdal High School in the Free State in 1979 and obtained a BProc degree at the University of Zululand in 1983. Three years later she received her LLB degree from the University of Bophuthatswana. Nkabinde commenced her career in 1984 as a state law adviser for the former homeland government of Bophuthatswana. She enrolled to be an advocate in 1988, did her pupillage at the Johannesburg Bar and was admitted a year later. Nkabinde practiced as an advocate for a decade in North West province until invited to act as a judge, and shortly thereafter was permanently appointed a high court judge. Court. She continued to have acting stints in the Labour Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein in 2005. Her time on the Constitutional Court has not been clear sailing; she was one of two judges approached by Cape Judge President John Hlophe on a supposed “mandate” to intervene on behalf of ANC president Jacob Zuma in his long-running battle with the National Prosecuting Authority. The incident set off a serious conflict between Hlophe and the Constitutional Court which seemed set to run for years.
Kate O’ReganConstitutional Court
Tel: +27 11 359 7400
One of two female judges who formed part of the founding class of 1994, Judge Kate O’Regan was born in Liverpool, England before her parents moved to South Africa. O’Regan, who was the youngest judge President Nelson Mandela appointed to the highest court, earlier this year publicly supported Public Enterprises Minister Barbara Hogan, who criticised the government for refusing to grant the Dalai Lama a visa for a football match in honour of Mandela. As a sitting judge, O’Regan was heavily criticised for speaking out on a political decision. She was the acting deputy chief justice at the time when Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe is alleged to have attempted to influence her colleagues Bess Nkabinde and Chris Jafta to rule in favour of President Jacob Zuma in a search and seizure case before the court. She holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and an LLM from the University of Sydney in Australia. Before being appointed to the Bench, O’Regan was an associate professor of law at the University of Cape Town, her alma mater, after a long stint as an attorney defending labour unions and land rights groups in apartheid South Africa. O’Regan has not dismissed returning to academia when she retires from the Constitutional Court in October.
Suretta SnydersSupreme Court of Appeal
Tel: +27 51 447 2631
The latest of two female appointments to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) this year, Judge Suretta Synders may be remembered as the jurist who lifted a gagging order on the Mail & Guardian after it published a story exposing corruption at the Post Office. At the time Synders was on the South Gauteng High Court Bench in Johannesburg, to which she was first appointed in 1997. She was elevated to the SCA at the beginning of 2009. Synders studied at the University of Stellenbosch initially towards a BCom degree before receiving her LLB. She was conferred with senior counsel status in 1996.
Kathleen Margaret SatchwellJohannesburg High Court
Tel: +27 11 332 8162
Judge Kathleen Satchwell could possibly hold the record for handing down the shortest jail sentence in South Africa when in 2005 she sentenced convicted husband killer Anne-Marie Engelbrecht to a mere five minutes in jail. In a sign of her empathy for the abused Engelbrecht and a signal to male abusers that their actions could be a ground for culpability, Satchwell ruled that Engelbrecht had suffered enough as a result of the abuse from her late husband. Satchwell studied for a BA and BA (honours) in anthropology and African languages at Rhodes University before taking up legal practice in Johannesburg dealing mostly with human rights cases. She followed up with an LLB from Unisa while holding various teaching jobs at two Grahamstown institutions, the Grahamstown Technical College and the Diocesan School for Girls. She also holds a post-graduate diploma in education.
Satchwell has served on the South Gauteng Bench in Johannesburg for the past 10 years and created legal history in 2002 when she won a Constitutional Court case that afforded her same-sex partner the same benefits as those given to married judges’ spouses.
Jeanette TraversoCape Provincial Division
Deputy Judge President of the High Court
Tel: +27 21 480 2411
Western Cape Deputy Judge President Jeanette Traverso, the woman holding the fort in the absence of Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe, has a long list of “firsts” in her CV. As deputy president of one of the biggest divisions in the country, she became the first woman to assume a leadership position within the South African judiciary. She was only the second woman to be appointed to the Bench in South Africa in 1994 and seven years later she became the first woman to be appointed deputy judge president. Traverso is the daughter of Blaar Coetzee, the National Party minister of community development, and actress Twinkle Hanekom. She was the first woman to be called to the Cape Bar Council and also the first to be conferred with senior counsel status. Traverso studied at Stellenbosch University where she obtained her BA and LLB degrees before becoming a prosecutor in the magistrate courts in 1969. She later joined the Attorney General’s office as a state advocate. Traverso is a member of, among others, the steering committee of the Equality Legislation Education and Training Unit, the board of the Law, Race and Gender Institute of the University of Cape Town and the executive committee of the international Association of Women Judges (South African Chapter).
Leona TheronPietermaritzburg High Court
Tel: +27 33 345 8211
Judge Leona Theron has previously been nominated to fill the position of deputy judge president of the Kwa-Zulu Natal Bench and at the end of last year she was interviewed by the Judicial Service Commission for a position on the Constitutional Court. She has also been interviewed for a permanent place on the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) where she has served a full acting term. Theron, a poet, was appointed a judge in 1999 at the age of 33, the youngest person in that position in KwaZulu-Natal. She received both her bachelor of law and BA degrees from the University of Natal. A Fulbright scholar, she graduated with an LLM degree from the University of Georgetown in the United States in 1990 and became an advocate in South Africa the following year. Theron 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. She 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.
Belinda van HeerdenSupreme Court of Appeal
Tel: +27 51 447 2631
Belinda van Heerden has served on the country’s court of last resort on criminal cases the past nine years. Van Heerden grew up in Somerset West in the Western Cape and studied at Stellenbosch University, initially for her bachelor’s degree and later her LLM. She completed her honours and master’s degrees in jurisprudence at Oxford University. Van Heerden was first appointed as a judge in the Western Cape in 2000 after a long career in legal academia at the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cape Town. She was elevated to South Africa’s criminal appeal court four years later and in 2006 served a term as an acting justice on the Constitutional Court. Van Heerden, who since last year has been serving as the primary contact person in South Africa for the Hague Network of Judges, is a published author of various legal publications.