PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
First Woman Lawyer and Judge (eSwatini)
By Cassidy Strong
Qinisile M. Mabuza is a historic legal figure in her home country of Eswatini, a small landlocked nation in the southernmost region of Africa. Not only is she Swaziland’s first-ever female lawyer, but she also made history again, almost thirty years later, when she became the first woman in Swaziland to serve as a judge. With an illustrious, decades-long career under her belt, numerous leadership experiences, and a continued drive to further women’s rights through her court decisions, Qinisile Mabuza deserves recognition for her positive influence on the legal field.
Mabuza first earned her Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland. She then went on to earn her Master of Laws, with an emphasis on Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure, from the University of South Africa. In 1978, Mabuza made history by becoming “the first Swazi woman to be admitted as an attorney of the High Court of Swaziland” (Commissioners, 2018). During her private sector career as an attorney, she was a founding partner at Q.M. Mabuza and Associates. She has also served as a university professor, working for three years at the University of Swaziland as a Lecturer of Law. Mabuza made history yet again in 2005 when she became the first woman ever appointed to serve as a Judge of the High Court of Swaziland. In 2016, she was appointed a judge to the court of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).
Prior to being appointed as a judge on the national level, Mabuza also held positions on numerous committees, which all served as ample opportunities for her to provide needed female representation for other Swazi women. From 1994 to 1997, she worked as a Chairperson for the Swaziland Road Transportation Board. While Chairperson, Mabuza filled another important leadership role, serving as a Non-Executive Director for Swaziland’s Central Bank. She fulfilled the latter role for eleven years, beginning in 1994 and continuing until her appointment to the High Court in 2005. In addition, Mabuza has served as a member of several Committees of Enquiry, including serving as Chairperson of the Phalala Fund Enquiry in 2005. It is very evident that Mabuza’s legal expertise has helped her fulfill a wide array of professional roles, and she is a hardworking, positive role model for other Swazi women who wish to follow in her footsteps and pursue careers in the legal field.
Perhaps her most important leadership role to date is her appointment to the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). She was elected to the elite organization by a special vote conducted in January and February of 2013 and in 2018 was re-elected to her second five-year term with the organization. In this incredibly notable role, Mabuza works alongside 59 other commissioners from across the globe, led by the United Kingdom’s Professor Sir Nigel Rodley. These legal experts “are known for their experience, knowledge and fundamental commitment to human rights,” and it is refreshing to see an African woman actually being given a leadership position to advance human rights worldwide. In fact, Mabuza is one of only nine members within the entire Commission who hail from the continent of Africa, providing key representation for all of Swaziland on the international stage.
Not stopping at simply providing valuable representation for Swazi women, Qinisile Mabuza has taken her role as a judge very seriously, using her platform to make key legal decisions that advance the rights of women throughout Swaziland. Most notably, one ruling in 2010 changed the long- established precedent and finally made it legal for Swazi women to own and administrate property in their own names. In this lawsuit, women’s rights activist Doo Aphane took the national government itself to court, arguing that the Deeds Registry Act, specifically Section 16(3), effectively discriminated against her and all other women married in the community of property.
This particular Section “prevented women married in the community of property from registering immovable property in their names. This piece of legislation further allowed the husband to be the sole administrator of the property.” Aphane asserted that this law violated both Section 20 of the Constitution, commonly known as the equality clause, as well as Section 28, which grants Swazi women equal rights across all political, social, and economic activities. Judge Mabuza’s landmark ruling gave women married in community property the right to register property in their own names, as well as to have an equal partnership with their husbands in its administration. She also ordered Swaziland’s parliament to implement reforms to the Deeds Registry Act, and openly criticized the government for not quickly ushering in these changes after the 2005 adoption of the Constitution.
Additionally, the International Commission of Jurists cited a specific human rights-related case in explaining their decision to approach Mabuza for membership. In this case, which revolved around a chieftaincy dispute with the daughter of King Sobhuza II, Judge Mabuza ruled in favor of the applicant. While numerous other judges flat-out refused to hear the case for fear of any repercussions that would ensue, she willingly took on the case, carved out the necessary time to listen to the Applicant’s concerns, and eventually ruled in her favor. These examples showcase the unique leadership style, based on compassion and diplomacy rather than hierarchy and aggression that female political leaders bring to the table.
Throughout her legal career, Mabuza has served as a pioneer for women’s rights in both her home
country of Swaziland and beyond. Mabuza consistently uses her platform as a judge to advocate for
needed solutions to ongoing women’s issues, and as a trailblazing member of a marginalized group
herself, her work within this human rights context is especially admirable. Women in African
countries, especially smaller nations like Swaziland, are often completely erased from the large-
scale global discussion of feminist movements. Their ideas and political tools are often taken
without any proper credit and reworked by their Western counterparts, who simultaneously
deride African women for not being feminist enough. However, Mabuza’s groundbreaking role as a
lawyer, as well as her various landmark decisions as a judge on the High Court, serve as a telling
example that African women are perfectly capable of bringing about positive policy changes,
without any outside influences meddling in their affairs.