Leona Theron tells a most amusing story of gender stereotyping when she was once stopped by a traffic officer at a roadblock and asked for personal details: name, age, profession.
To which she routinely answered “Leona, 33, judge. “Judge”? he quizzed incredulously. “Are you a judge in a beauty competition?”
She laughs generously at the ludicrous situation even as she remembers it many years later. Theron was appointed as a judge of the high court at the age of 32 when most people are embarking on a
At the time she was the youngest judge in the country and the first black female judge to be appointed in KwaZulu-Natal
When women reach the pinnacle of their career at a young age, one is often curious to find the magic formula of their success.
What was it about them that produced such amazing outcomes? Was it a gift of high intelligence and good fortune? No, Theron would say it was about sheer hard work and a good supportive family.
It was also about other people in the church, at school and in the community.
I believe in the Zulu proverb: Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, translated as “people are people because of people”.
Growing up as a young child in the coloured area of Wentworth where crime, abuse of alcohol, drugs, and domestic violence was rife, Theron did not know what it was to have running water or a bathroom in the house until she was 13.
Though Theron grew up in poverty where life was an everyday struggle to survive, she appears not to be impoverished by her past. The underlying personality created by a stoic upbringing has produced a high achiever.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers describes outstanding
qualities of high achievers that blossom despite deprivation or hardships. The factors that sustain children are strong rooted families with good values.
Theron’s parents did just this as they encouraged her to work hard and succeed in her studies. As a young girl, Theron contributed to the family income by selling home-made coconut ice and fudge sweets.
From the age of 16 she worked every school and university holiday to pay for her university fees. At a given time she was able to secure three part-time jobs.
Over weekends, she worked as a cashier at OK Bazaars with her mother. In the evenings, she worked in the law library at the University of Natal and, during her spare time, she tutored students. She even found time to learn to play the piano and is now an accomplished organist at her church.
Now early deprivation has been replaced by a comfortable if not luxurious life.
She is married to wealthy entrepreneur Charles Sarjoo and they have four high achieving children.
The qualities that stand out among all her achievements is her warmth and attentiveness to the needs of others.
She never forgets her old friends and family members no matter how high she ascends the ladder of success. Underlying these qualities is her determination to succeed on all fronts. She is by no means a one-dimensional woman juggling so many roles with expertise.
She is a hands-on mother, a doting daughter, a loving wife and a caring friend. She is an amazing cook who treats her guests to the most delicious cuisine and never hesitates to help clean up tables when she is a guest at a friend’s home.
But juggling family and career was a challenge.
She recalls: “When I had to do my first hearing as an acting judge in the Eastern Cape, my baby was five days old. My mother and the baby went with me and we settled into a hotel near the court. I conducted the hearing and breast-fed the baby in-between sessions.”
This pattern continued for a while until her husband convinced her to leave the children in his care.
While it gave her space, the price she had to pay was a little disconcerting to the ego when the children ran to their father’s side of the bed and notes from the teachers were addressed to him.
But this did not devalue the partnership in the parenting process.
The important lesson she espouses is “You reap what you sow”.
“My achievements are all about hard work, time management, planning and being rooted in sound human values.
“Even though I have been appointed to the highest court in the land as a judge in the Constitutional Court, I will not rest on my laurels and stop working hard. It is ingrained in my very psyche.”
Around the dinner table she tells us about her latest accomplishment of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, 10 days after she had had an operation to remove her gall bladder.
She could have cancelled her trip as many would have predictably done, but to Theron it would have spelt failure.
“I stood above the clouds and had a sense of my life’s purpose
and my challenge to accomplish a physical feat to celebrate my 50th birthday. It was a journey that spanned a year from preparation
Theron is an independent thinker. She is deeply religious and guided by her spiritual beliefs to do the right thing always.
Her bold decision in refusing to support a ruling that gave a reduced sentence to a rapist was praised by the Minister of Justice Bridget Mabandla and the Judicial Services Commission.
In doing so, she stood up against her peers on the bench who felt otherwise.
Judge Theron was also recognised for her precedent setting decision in 2008 on the rights of women in customary marriage, which was upheld by the constitutional court.
Her ruling had a great impact on African women in monogamous customary marriages, who would now have a legitimate stake in their husband's properties.
In her newly appointed position as Justice of the Constitutional Court, she has already chartered her course of action to uphold the constitution as the supreme law of the country during times of great political upheaval.
Who could be trusted to undertake such a task with more integrity and determination to administer justice to all people alike without fear, favour or prejudice than Justice Leona Theron?