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Mandisa Maya’s Chief Justice interview marred by the poison of subtle sexism and congealed paternalism

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Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

Rising to a particularly high office as a woman is seen to be more exceptional than a natural ascription of a high-functioning, intelligent and sharp-minded person invoking unwanted and unwarranted scrutiny or patronising patting on the head.

On any given day, to be a woman is an experience that requires a continuous negotiation with a world not built in your image. This task becomes even more arduous when you are a black woman. Those who confront this reality head-on are not, however, left unscathed by the experience. What some might see as endurance, tenacity and grit is actually quite fatiguing and burdensome to one’s mental health. This particular scene played out at the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interviews for Chief Justice on 2 February, during Judge President of the Supreme Court of Appeal Mandisa Maya’s interview.

Perhaps a good place to start would be to establish what it is that we are looking for in a Chief Justice of the country, the head of the judiciary and the Constitutional Court?

I am by no means a legal scholar but I am a fervent believer in the values and spirit of our Constitution and have a few suggestions about what we should be looking for. One imagines that a Chief Justice should have an exceptional record as both a leader and a jurist; they should have integrity, discipline and the necessary gravitas to lead a bench of jurists who are independent-minded and exceptional in their own right. Above all, they need to unequivocally pledge their allegiance and tenure to upholding, defending and furthering the ideals of justice and equality for all, as engendered in the Constitution.

In her opening presentation, Maya did just that as she meticulously set out her vision for the office of Chief Justice, saying that “whoever is appointed for this position bears the responsibility of ensuring that the institution remains strong, retains its integrity and firmly executes its role of protecting and promoting the Constitution and the law so that our country, especially the poor and most vulnerable members of our society, are guaranteed access to justice”.

Describing the Constitution, Maya said: “It seeks to heal the wounds we suffered and develop a new country, a normal country… for our children and the next generation.”

Maya gave a long list of accolades and achievements, among them a Fulbright scholarship, not one but three honorary doctorates, being appointed chancellor of the University of Mpumalanga and, of course, her current position leading South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal, the last stop before the apex court, which she is interviewing to be in charge of. Appearing in her professional capacity and with a demonstrated, impeccable professional record, I was baffled as to why the issue of her being a woman proceeded to hold court throughout her interview.

Sadly, the slow poison of subtle sexism and crossover from collegiality to congealed paternalism raised its head in the proceedings. This was evidenced in Maya’s terse response when answering the question of whether South Africa is ready for a female Chief Justice, to which she responded that she takes exception to the question and knows it angers other women, too, to have this constantly come up – as though women are being done a favour by being considered. I had to restrain myself from high-fiving my laptop screen because, yes, as a woman I am indeed tired of this question.

It went further when a thinly veiled, inappropriate sexual innuendo was proffered by Dali Mpofu as he told the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) he and Maya had spent a night together. With a seemingly wry smile, he added: “My declaration is that, uh, acting president, president Maya and I did pupillage together and, erm, we spent a night, a night, together”. To a chorus of laughter. Maya awkwardly laughed and responded: “Please explain that, commissioner Mpofu.” Mpofu explained that the two had been study partners during pupillage and had, one night, stayed up studying all night for an exam.

Men have been known to use sexual innuendo to subdue or throw off balance women who seem too confident and threatening to them. It’s a tactic I am not unfamiliar with, but one that bears challenging because it ultimately plays out as a tactic of domination. I have difficulty picturing Maya having declared the same if roles were reversed and Mpofu were seeking to occupy the position of Chief Justice. There is a level of dignity and decorum that was missing from that exchange as initiated by Mpofu.

Rising to a particularly high office as a woman is seen to be more exceptional than a natural ascription of a high-functioning, intelligent and sharp-minded person invoking unwanted and unwarranted scrutiny or patronising patting on the head.

However, we cannot spend our lives in a constant, adrenaline-driven battle to prove our worth and our right to pursue any career we so desire. And so, while Maya started off her interview vehemently fending off the gender-biased questioning regarding her suitability for Chief Justice, after a full day’s onslaught we all felt the toll it was taking.

It seems commissioners at the JSC interviews need reminding that one of the values of the Constitution, for which they are interviewing candidates to safeguard and promote, protects the rights of all people and promotes equal protection, the benefit of the law and freedom from unfair discrimination based on gender, sex, pregnancy and marital status – something they seem to have forgotten or perhaps deliberately overlooked. DM168

Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist at Maverick Citizen.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Having been ‘recommended’ by the very same uber male chauvinists and sometimes lechers as ‘their’ preferred candidate for the post of CJ, she could find herself in the doubly excruciating/compromising role of possibly having to adjudicate ‘for/against’ one of these obnoxious individuals, in a matter that may come before the CC. Imagine that situation ?

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    A professor of law has suggested that instead of the “pat on the head” … she should beware of the ‘dagger in the back’ ! Rather like one of the judge presidents of a provincial court just visiting two CC justices privately and ‘suggesting/advising’ a direction in ruling regarding a matter concerning our ex-president !

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