Softball and sexist JSC interview does no favours to Chief Justice candidate Mandisa Maya
On the second day of JSC interviews to select the next Chief Justice, a relentless focus on Judge Mandisa Maya’s gender made proceedings feel particularly insubstantial – an issue amplified by the sense that most commissioners were treating the sole female candidate with kid gloves.
There were numerous questionable aspects to Wednesday’s Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interview of Chief Justice candidate Mandisa Maya, but the most jaw-dropping moment arrived when commissioner Dali Mpofu knowingly insinuated that he had had a past sexual encounter with Judge Maya – as a joke.
Taking the microphone to begin questioning Judge Maya, Mpofu announced to the commission: “I have a declaration to make.”
Mpofu then said that he and Maya had once “spent a night together”.
Pausing just long enough to allow for the desired titters and gasps, Mpofu then clarified, with a broad grin, that the two had stayed up all night studying when they were doing their pupillage. Mass hilarity ensued.
The fact that one of the most respected judges in the country could be subjected to schoolboy sexual innuendo while being interviewed for the most senior judicial post in South Africa should remind women just how far they still have to go.
For further evidence of the chasm separating the treatment of men and women in certain professional settings, you may want to watch Maya’s entire JSC interview.
It is probably no exaggeration to say that perhaps one in every five questions or observations directed by the JSC to Maya did not directly reference her gender. After five deadening hours the mere mention of the “W” word was starting to induce faint nausea.
Justice Minister Ronald Lamola set the tone with the very first question of the day, in which he clumsily encouraged Maya to reassure the commissioners that she was standing for Chief Justice on her own merits and not simply as a woman. Oddly, during the previous day’s interview, Judge Mbuyiseli Madlanga had at no point been invited to calm the JSC’s nerves by clarifying that he didn’t intend to wave his maleness around like a parade flag.
Maya was subsequently asked the question again, with slightly different wording, by commissioner Pule Tlaletsi.
“I am not good because I am a woman. I am a good woman judge,” responded Maya, which surely should have been the last word on the matter.
Then: “Is South Africa ready for a female Chief Justice?”
The question had already been asked of Judge Madlanga the previous day. Ignoring the obvious rejoinders at his disposal – “Who cares?” for instance, or “If we had to wait for South Africa to be ready for a female anything, the only two occupations available to women would probably be ‘sex worker’ and ‘mother’” – Madlanga chose instead to say that he believed that was a question for the JSC to answer.
At the risk of belabouring the point, it’s worth pausing here to take in for a second the sheer insanity of this. That in 2022, one of the most senior figures in the South African justice system could be asked whether it would turn out okay if we let a woman be Chief Justice for a bit. That the judge in question would pause for a few seconds in response, as if trying to picture how on Earth it would work – like envisaging a cat attempting to rollerblade. That eventually he would effectively confess that it was simply too difficult or controversial a question to attempt to answer.
“It’s not a proper question to ask,” responded Maya when her time came. She also pointed out that it would be unthinkable for a commissioner to inquire whether South Africa was ready for a black chief justice.
Around this point, JSC commissioners started doing something new. Before asking Maya a question, it apparently became obligatory to preface it with a glowing encomium about how extraordinary and astonishing it was that a teeny tiny lady like Maya had achieved such career success.
“I’m trying to think of any woman who has risen to your majestic heights,” mused one commissioner, practically shaking his head in bafflement.
Commissioner Sylvia Lucas informed Maya that even if she didn’t get appointed as Chief Justice, she had broken the glass ceiling just by being interviewed, which is literally the opposite of breaking the glass ceiling.
That was only part of the glorious praise poem Lucas wove around Maya, which included informing the judge that she has “become the hope and the pole-bearer for women’s aspirations”. That is one helluva burden to shoulder, which might be partly why Maya promptly broke down in tears and which was, all things considered, not an ideal development.
The sole female candidate for Chief Justice weeping during an interview – sure, in an ideal world people would shake her hand and commend her for her public vulnerability, but Maya’s interview as a whole strongly suggested that we very much do not live in that world.
Incidentally, one of Maya’s rivals for Chief Justice, Raymond Zondo, also once cried in front of the JSC, in 2017, and nobody seems to have suggested that this made him a walking emotional grenade. In fact, people found it utterly charming, and the Sunday Times even wrote a whole story digging into the exact cause of his tears (recalling a kindly benefactor who helped subsidise Zondo’s education, if you’re wondering).
As Maya dabbed her eyes, a frenzied whisper was almost audible from women all around the country watching and pleading in unison: Nobody say she’s emotional. Nobody say she’s emotional. Nobody mention the e-word. No–
“We are emotional creatures, us women,” purred commissioner Lucas, proffering a toxic old gender stereotype to Maya by way of comfort.
Maya, who on the basis of this interview alone must have been through an unimaginable quantity of sexist bullshit in her life, quickly deflected this kiss of death with the sarcastic response: “Ja, that’s what they always say about us.”
But not all the blame for the folksy stereotypes being batted around merrily in Maya’s interview can be put on the JSC commissioners.
Maya did herself no favours at points. Quizzed by commissioner Julius Malema on whether it was accurate to say that having a woman in leadership would automatically result in improved outcomes for women, Maya eventually stumbled into the suggestion that women were temperamentally just more “nurturing” than men, and this constitutional aspect to women might be more evident in female leaders.
This is plainly bollocks. (Has anyone outside these women’s immediate families ever gazed at the likes of Helen Zille, or Lindiwe Sisulu, or Jessie Duarte, and thought: “God, I’ve had a terrible day. I just know that a hug from that woman would make everything better”?)
Frustratingly, however, Maya had never actually claimed that putting women in charge of everything would magically lead to gender equality overnight, which is a clearly indefensible proposition.
But after hours of being subjected to an interview that essentially amounted to being slowly smothered to death by a fluffy pink heart cushion, one can hardly blame her for grabbing at any old nonsense to defend her gender.
The doubly frustrating aspect of this all was that Maya entered the interview keyed up on adrenaline like a barnstorming boss – which her CV suggests she very much is.
It is Maya who is credited with restoring calm control to the previously fractured and malfunctioning Supreme Court of Appeal. It is Maya, a former Fulbright Scholar who has been awarded three honorary doctorates, who was endorsed for the position of Chief Justice by the deans of almost every law school in the country. It is Maya who – among a bunch of other firsts – was the first judge in South African history to write a significant judgment in isiXhosa.
And when Maya began by setting out her vision for the judiciary, she was firing on all cylinders. Talking passionately about the need to elevate the 10 other official South African languages, she also made trenchant points about the current failings of the judiciary – including the fact that no sexual harassment policy exists in the institution, and that South African judges have not had a meeting under one roof since 2009 – and plausible suggestions about how to streamline the delivery of justice, including reducing the quorum required of Constitutional Court justices to allow two panels of judges to sit concurrently.
So impressive was Maya’s initial presentation, in fact, that by the time the floor was opened to questions from the JSC, it seemed almost inconceivable that President Cyril Ramaphosa would appoint any other Chief Justice.
But in the face of endless questions about her gender, and in the face of an apparent reluctance on the part of most JSC members to truly test her intellectual mettle – in marked contrast to Judge Madlanga’s interview the day before – Maya appeared to wilt and fizzle out.
Her answers became ever more brief, her confessions that she didn’t know enough about the progress of certain matters more frequent, and she started ending her answers with a trailed-off “That’s the best I can say…” or “I don’t know if I am making sense…” or “It is what it is…”
The majority of JSC commissioners appear to have entered Maya’s interview predisposed to like and support her, in an undeniably paternalistic way, and it’s unclear whether the judge’s ultimately rather weak performance will have changed their minds. Another unknown: whether a very different tone and angle of questioning could have produced a superior display from Maya, although it was hard not to suspect as much.
At one point during the questions, Maya was asked by commissioner Mpofu how she felt when she was turned down for the Constitutional Court Bench a few years ago.
For the first time, Maya suddenly looked truly defeated.
“Here we go again,” she shrugged. “Here’s the lot of women, not taken seriously again.”
It is difficult to imagine that Maya would have left the JSC interview without the same sinking feeling. DM