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100 Years of Women Lawyers in South Africa: A Time to Celebrate and Reflect

Congratulations to the incredible women legal practitioners of South Africa on their momentous celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Women Legal Practice Act of 1923!

A section of women legal professionals at the ceremonial sittings at the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg. Photo credit: Alfonso Nqunjana/News24

The Women Legal Practice Act opened the doors for women to enter the legal profession in the country. Irene Geffen became the first woman to be admitted as an advocate in 1923. Constance Mary Hall followed in 1926 as the first female attorney. However, due to the discriminatory apartheid policies, it took considerably longer for black women to enter the legal profession. It was not until 1967 that Desiree Finca became the first black female South African lawyer. Despite racial discrimination, black women in law in South Africa have excelled, as evidenced by the historic appointment of Justice Mandisa Maya as the first female Deputy Chief Justice in 2022.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Act, the South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges and the 100More Campaign hosted ceremonial sittings on Tuesday, 25 April 2023, in the Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Northwest provinces. Honorary guests who attended the Gauteng High Court sitting in Johannesburg included Desiree Finca. During the special sitting in Pretoria, Judge President Dunstan Mlambo ceremoniously "overturned" two judgments from 1909 and 2012 that had excluded women from entering the legal profession. Women in law around South Africa also took to the podium to speak about their journeys and call for gender equality in the legal professions.

During the Pretoria special sitting, Shamila Batohi, from the National Prosecuting Authority, admitted that despite some advancements, women in the legal profession still face numerous obstacles. Advocate Kgomotso Moroka, from the Johannesburg Society of Advocates, emphasized that more work is needed for women's equality, especially for black women.

Advocate Kagiso Magano, from the Tshwane Society of Advocates, posed the following questions:

“What are we doing, as the profession, to address these issues? One can easily say, 'Appoint women to the Bench', but is that enough?”

Judge Tolmay urged women in the legal profession to be trailblazers and pioneers and stated that

“Let us be the change we want to see. They call us emotional. Yes, we are. We care.”

Despite the recent celebration of 100 years since women were allowed to enter the legal profession, few women in law occupy leadership positions in South Africa. The Institute for African Women in Law (IAWL) recently conducted a study on African women’s representation in leadership roles in the bar, the bench, and the legal academy, highlighting these challenges and providing recommendations. The focus countries included South Africa. We are pleased to announce that these reports will soon be published on our website and will be shared on all our platforms.

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