PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Judge (Rtd), Constitutional Court, South Africa.
By Jordan Orange
Justice Yvonne Mokgoro was born on October 19, 1950, in Galeshewe Township near Kimberley in the Northern Cape. She was born during apartheid and she actively fought against this system of discrimination and oppression. . She overcame many obstacles to embark on a robust legal career. Mokgoro’s educational background is extensive and a testament to her expertise in the legal field. Upon graduating from St. Boniface High School, she attended the University of Bophuthatswana, now known as North-West University, as a part-time student. Mokgoro received a Bachelor of Jurisprudence from North-West University and then two years later she obtained a Bachelor of Laws. In 1987, Mokgoro earned a Master of Laws. Three years later in 1990, she received another LLM from the University of Pennsylvania. Ultimately, Mokgoro’s extensive educational background prepared her for her influential career in law.
The beginning of Mokgoro’s career in law was not the typical experience one would expect. Her first two jobs were a nursing assistant role and a retail salesperson position. Mokgoro began her career as a public servant when she was appointed as a clerk for the Department of Justice. After she earned her LLB degree in 1982, she was appointed as a maintenance officer and public prosecutor in the Mmabatho Magistrate's Court. After fighting for justice for people in the public sector, she embarked on a new path that brought her back to education. In 1984, she was appointed as a law lecturer in the Department of Jurisprudence at the University of Bophuthatswana. Her dedication to this role allowed her to rise through the ranks, leading her to become an associate professor. She served in that position from 1984-1991 and between 1992 and1993, she transitioned to associate professor at the University of Western Cape.
While working as a professor, she also served as a specialist human rights researcher for the Centre for Constitutional Analysis at the Human Research Council. In addition to her other commitments, she lectured part-time at the University of Pretoria. Courses she taught during her academic career include; Constitutional Law, Comparative Law, Criminal Law, Private Law, and Human Rights Law Jurisprudence at several universities in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. She has also written and presented many scholarly papers while participating in national and international conferences. Mokgoro’s studies focused on the impact of South African laws on women and children in the country and on the international stage. Her success in academia led to her appointment as a judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa in October 1994, where she served until 2009.
The Constitutional Court was created after the country's first democratic constitution in 1994. In this position, she helped ensure that the new democratic laws of the land were being upheld. During her term, she served as chairperson of Venda University Council from 2002 to 2009 and as chairperson of the Selection Committee of the Press Council of South Africa.
Mokgoro is an honorary Professor of Law at the University of South Africa, University of Pennsylvania, University of the Western Cape, University of Cape Town, University of Pretoria, and the University of South Africa. She was granted a Doctor of Laws from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the University of Toledo, the University of Northwest, the University of the Western Cape, the University of Pretoria, and the University of the Witwatersrand. She has received numerous awards such as the Human Rights Award by the Black Lawyers Association in 1995, the Oude Molen Reserve Order of Merit in 1995, and the Legal Profession's Woman Achiever Award by the Centre for Human Rights in 2001. After her term on the Constitutional Court, she was appointed to serve as Special Ambassador for the University of Venda. Mokgoro was selected by the President of South Africa as an official Advocate for Social Cohesion in South Africa from 2013 to2018. Her remarkable career is proof of her dedication to the legal field and the human rights of South Africans.
Mokgoro has made numerous contributions to the field of law. As a South African woman, becoming a lawyer and then a judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa alone was a major contribution to the symbolic representation of women in the legal profession. She showed that despite being part of a racial group in a country that had laws to enforce her inferiority, she was still able to become an influential figure within her country and abroad. She has stood up against violence and human rights violations, and through her positions, she has ensured that democratic ideals were upheld. She has been awarded for her outstanding work and contributions to the law and served as a resource for non-governmental and community-based organizations.
South African and international human rights initiatives were improved as a result of Mokgoro’s involvement in this field. She became the president of Africa Legal Aid, providing legal assistance and human rights education throughout Africa. She served on many boards that ensured the safety of children and women like the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the South African Police Services Education Trust. Mokgoro expanded women’s rights and held membership in the International Association of Women Judges. In 2006, she was chosen to be an icon of the history of Women Lawyers in South Africa. This recognition alone is indicative of how influential she was to South Africa’s legal field and around the world. Yvonne Mokgoro is a pioneer for all Black women within the field of law because she has dedicated her life to ensuring that the law is just and fair.