Transformation of Judiciary

Sonke and the Democratic Rights and Governance Unit (DGRU) of University of Cape Town have embarked on an advocacy campaign to promote the participation of women in the judiciary. Given our work on gender-based violence, and the poor manner in which judicial officers have sometimes responded to rape in the courts, Sonke is committed to ensuring that those who make decisions in our judiciary are gender equal.

Work in this arena is predicated on two principles. Firstly, the Judiciary plays a central role in safeguarding and promoting constitutional freedoms, including gender equality. As such, the Judiciary must reflect the gender dynamics of the country. The forebears of South Africa’s constitutional democracy were mindful that “justice must not only be done, it must also be seen to be done”. Without women on the bench and without racial groups that were previously prevented from entering the legal profession in large numbers, justice will continue to be seen as the preserve of the few in South Africa. Secondly, evidence suggests that women judges tend to have a better grasp of the law on matters of GBV, and tend to be more thoughtful when considering punishment and rehabilitation options.

In 2012, the Democratic Rights and Governance Unit (DGRU) of the University of Cape Town (UCT) found that:

  • African women make less than one percent of the senior counsel in the legal profession in South Africa.
  • Of the 473 senior counsels from whose ranks candidate judges are selected, only nine are black women; Of the nine women, only four are African.
  • Twenty white women are practicing as senior counsel in South Africa.
  • As of October 2012, only 28% of the judges in the country were female.
  • Only two of the 11 Constitutional court judges are female; a number that has not increased since 1994 when the court was set up.

These findings called into serious question the ability of the Judiciary to uphold the principles of gender equality and non-sexism. On the basis of this research, Sonke Gender Justice and the DGRU lodged a complaint with the CGE, calling for an investigation into the lack of representation of women on the bench. The respondents named in the complaint were the President, as the appointing authority for judicial officers; the Judicial Services Commission, which receives nominations, interview and shortlist potential judges; and the Chief Justice of the country, who heads the South African Judiciary.

In response to the complaint, the CGE made a decision to exercise its legislative muscle and hold a formal enquiry on the lack of gender equal representation in the Judiciary. Adding weight to Sonke’s complaint, the Commission demanded a reply from all of the respondents and has set down dates for a formal public enquiry into the matter of judicial transformation, this represents and important first step. Sonke and DGRU remain committed to monitoring the public hearings and ensuring that they are either open to the public, or managed in a way that makes their findings publicly accessible.