Pretoria - Although the country is celebrating 100 years since women were allowed to enter the legal profession, it has always been an uphill battle, with far too few women occupying key positions in this profession.
This was the unanimous feeling of jurists, who this week celebrated the centenary of the promulgation of the Women Legal Practitioners Act of 1923, that allowed for the admission of women to the legal profession.
Since 1995, about 55 women judges have been appointed to the Gauteng Division of the High Court, which includes both the Pretoria and Johannesburg high courts.
At a special sitting this week at the Pretoria division, attended by judges and members of the legal profession, two judgments – one delivered in 1909 and the other in 2012 barring women from entering the legal profession – were ceremoniously “overturned” by Judge President Dunstan Mlambo.
Both judges in those decisions made it very clear that the legal profession had no place for women, as their place was raising children and cooking for their husbands.
Judge Ronel Tolmay, one of the speakers at the ceremony, said when she read those judgments, she was horrified about the injustice to women.
“It is an absolute disgrace,” she said.
Judge Tolmay called on women in the legal profession to be pioneers. “Let us be the change we want to see. They call us emotional. Yes, we are. We care.”
The judge said she wanted to cry at night, because she is not able to help everyone who needs it.
“But the day I stop crying is the day I shall leave the profession.”
She also referred to the fact that some women were bullied in the profession: “People will bully you, but I am no victim.”
Judge Tolmay said when she joined the bar in 1986, one of her male colleagues asked her why she was not pregnant and in the kitchen.
“He said that is where I belong.”
She also shared the fact that in those days some male attorneys would not give her work (brief her) because she was a woman.
“But they ended up appearing before me (now that she is a judge),” she said amid loud applause.
National Prosecuting head Shamila Batohi, who was also one of the speakers, said while it was clear that some progress had been made, many challenges still existed for women in the profession.
“Women are now indeed joining this noble profession in their numbers, and also increasingly occupying leadership positions within the profession and also in key government institutions. I’m proud to be part of that collective of women who are leading government institutions.”
She said today, almost half of the country’s judges and magistrates were women.
In the NPA, 54.5% of all staff were women. Out of the 10 directors of prosecutors in the country, six were women.
Batohi said at the end of March this year, the NPA welcomed more than 650 aspirant prosecutors, of which 375 were women.
Meanwhile the Pretoria Society of Advocates, through the initiative of advocates Linda Retief and Kgaogelo Ramaimela, hosted a similar event.
It shattered the proverbial glass ceiling as 170 female legal practitioners gathered in unison to acknowledge their own voice, earned by female practitioners of “the yesterday” who, through their actions, managed to ensure the passing of the now repealed act which barred women from practising law.
The theme for the evening was “yesterday, today and tomorrow” – a salute to “the yesterday”, an acknowledgement of “the today” and a call for footprints of continued change for “tomorrow”.
Judge Tsungai Phehane of the labour court, advocate Linda Retief and Nomthandazo Msimang addressed their colleagues and sisters in law.
The talks contained insightful perspectives from all three speakers, covering aspects of the personal and professional lives of female practitioners who wished to be seated at the table within the legal landscape.
Retief described the event as: “A refreshing illustration of how the very robe worn by legal practitioners in court was itself representative of a ‘yesterday, today and tomorrow’.”
She said also of significance was the attendance of a representative from the South African Women’s Lawyers Association’s bursary fund. The fund, named “Breaking the Poverty Line”, coined by the association’s bursary chairperson, Puleng Keetse, was featured as a means to entrench “the tomorrow” by raising funds to ensure the education of up-and-coming young women who wish to enter the legal profession.
“In this way a call to all the legal practitioners in attendance was made to secure the footprints of women in ‘the tomorrow’.”
Retief said those who attended the function agreed that “tomorrow started today” and that “power lies within the sisterhood”.