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Profile: Our Chief Justice

Meet Justice Mandisa Maya, the first woman president of South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal.

“The most challenging aspect of being a judge is the enormous responsibility you carry in resolving society’s disputes and determining people’s lives, including whether a person should go to prison for life,” says Justice Maya who, two years ago, in May 2017, took up office as the president of the Supreme Court of Appeal, which dates back to 1910.

Maya has made a significant contribution to the development of law, constitutional democracy, and human rights in South Africa, and is a champion of gender transformation in the judiciary. In 2004, she founded the South African chapter of the International Association of Women Judges and remains an active member.

With only seven women judges out of 25 judges in the Supreme Court of Appeal, she strongly recommends the appointment of more women judges: “There are not nearly enough younger women judges being appointed, and it is not for a lack of ability.”

Fighting for gender equity

It is something that needs to be addressed throughout the judiciary, from the graduate level, she explained at Nelson Mandela University’s graduation ceremony last year, when she was awarded an honorary doctorate of law.

“There is no shortage of women law students, and they are often the brightest in their class. But when they graduate, they too often don’t get the same opportunities as their male peers, because the profession is still very male-dominated at senior levels. We face the same situation in the corporate and government sectors.”

Only when the many accomplished women in this country are appointed as senior judges, CEOs and chairs of boards, believes Maya, will this start to change, as women in senior positions will then become the norm.

In addition to being president and managing her fellow judges, Maya’s core function is to preside over cases in the Supreme Court of Appeal, based in Bloemfontein.

Staying close to her roots

During the recess period, she spends time at her home on a small farm on the outskirts of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape where she and her husband grow vegetables and keep livestock. “My husband and I are very focused on healthy, sustainable living, and we are able to eat organic thanks to the vegetables, pigs, chickens, goats and crops that we produce.”

“We need to encourage self-sufficiency in our country,” says Maya, a daughter of the rural Eastern Cape, born in the village of Tsolo. “Too many people do nothing but wait for their social grants. A while back I said to the ladies in my Mthatha community, ‘I see you there following the trajectory of the sun all day, when you could be feeding yourselves by growing vegetables.’ ”

She helped them to fence off vegetable patches as they complained that free-roaming livestock destroyed their produce, and her effort is taking root: “On my last visit home, one of the ladies showed me the beautiful potatoes she had grown, and another showed me her cabbages. It is a growing movement!”

Giving people access to the law

Another issue that Maya is committed to changing, is the lack of access to the law for the majority of people. “Litigation is very expensive, and so it remains inaccessible to most. Therefore, people’s rights are not universally exercised. This needs to change.” She has served as a member and chairperson of the South African Law Reform Commission since 2013 and as board member of the South African Journal on Human rights.

Her deep sense of justice and equality stems from her parents, Oxley and Mavis Maya, who were teachers committed to ensuring that learners in the deepest rural areas of the Transkei gained an excellent education. “My father was a maths teacher and my mother an English teacher. They didn’t have money, but they were brilliant teachers who nurtured brilliant scholars.”

That she would return home to Transkei after her studies abroad was never in question: “It is not without considerable problems, including deep poverty and educational issues, but it is a place that keeps tugging at my heart and drawing me back.

It has its own special charm and beauty, and I am yet to see any place in the world with the raw beauty of the Wild Coast. And then there are people – beautiful, warm people with such a sense of themselves. Whether you are a judge or a fisherman, people in the Transkei speak to each other as equals. I feel a deep sense of coming home every time I return.”

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The Fulbright Scholar

Mandisa Maya matriculated from St John’s College in Mthatha, followed by a BProc degree from the former University of the Transkei in 1986.

She then gained an LLB from the former University of Natal in 1988, and in 1990 she graduated with an LLM from Duke University in the United States as a Fulbright scholar.

“Coming from South Africa, which was so closed at the time, it was mind-blowing to find myself at Duke in my mid-20s. It was a magnificent experience and I emerged feeling super confident in my ability to have gone there from rural Transkei and succeed.”

Words by Heather Dugmore

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