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Her Seat on the Bench: How Mabaeng Lenyai’s journey inspires women in law

Ms. Denise Mabaeng Lenyai. Photo credit: Ms. Lenyai.

Mabaeng Lenyai is a pioneer woman in law. In March 2022, she made history by becoming the first elected female President of the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA). Before this remarkable achievement, she was appointed as an acting Judge at the Gauteng Division of the High Court in Pretoria. This acting opportunity opened her to exploring a career on the bench - a glimpse into the judicial world where she eventually earned a permanent seat. In April 2023, Mabaeng was appointed by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) as one of five new judges to join the Gauteng Division of the High Court. Congratulations Mabaeng!

She has been appointed based on her extensive experience, enabling her to “hit the ground” running in South Africa’s busiest court. The General Council of Bar’s testimonial about Mabaeng further reveals she is a gem. The Council stated that her appointment “would send a message to the public that the JSC values the appointment of candidates who are able to produce a large number of well-reasoned and well-written judgments across a broad spectrum of legal fields, and who have knowledge and experience beyond the borders of South Africa”. The endorsement rides on the back of Mabaeng’s spectacular output during her days as acting Judge.

In South Africa, acting judicial appointments are used to fill temporary vacancies. Though not a formal prerequisite, there is an unwritten code for an aspiring judge to have some acting experience before they are appointed. The 2023 IAWL report found the unofficial acting prerequisite as an entry challenge for women because getting an acting opportunity depends on a person’s network which can be tough for women seeking to join a male-dominated space. This acting appointment requirement is significantly considered by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). Some women have written about their acting experiences. The lack of acting experience is often interpreted as a lack of judicial experience and exposure, leading to more women being deemed underqualified.

Ms. Lenyai delivering a speech at the IAWL WILL reports launch in South Africa. Photo credit: IAWL.

Mabaeng’s acting appointment, like others before her, created a pathway to the judiciary and its leadership. Thus, the more women get acting appointments, the more their chances of securing their seat on the bench and the more cracks are created in the concrete ceiling for women in leadership.

Mabaeng’s legal career, which started in 1998 when she was admitted to the bar, has been dotted with many leaps in leadership that have finally landed her in the judiciary. She has previously served as a council member and the Vice-President of the LSSA. She has also served as the Vice President of the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), chairperson of the Northwest branch of the Black Lawyers Association (BLA), secretary general and Deputy President of the National Executive Council of the BLA, and a council member of the Community Education Training center in Mmakau. She also ran her law firm, Mabaeng Lenyai Inc. Mabaeng’s career pathway is trailblazing for many upcoming women in law seeking to chart a unique trajectory because she demonstrates that women can be many things and anything they hope to be, even if it's not all at the same time.

The Institute for African Women in Law (IAWL) is very proud of Mabaeng’s achievements and continues to cheer her on to go higher up the ladder. Congratulations once again on your appointment to the bench!

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