Mak­ing his­tory

CityPress - - News -

Man­disa Maya, who is soon to be con­firmed as the first fe­male pres­i­dent of the Supreme Court of Ap­peal (SCA), stretches her mem­ory to rec­ol­lect her ear­li­est ex­pe­ri­ence of sex­ism. Un­sur­pris­ingly, it is re­lated to her de­sire to ex­cel.

She re­counts the in­ci­dent, which oc­curred when she was in pri­mary school. The young Maya wanted to play softball in a for­mal team. “I was good at it,” she re­mem­bers. “This big boy stopped me from join­ing the team sim­ply be­cause I was a girl, and he said so, in so many words. We were very young, but it’s the way we are so­cialised. You find it even in chil­dren to­day, be­cause this is what they see in so­ci­ety and what they learn from their par­ents.”

Maya, now aged 53, has been smash­ing glass ceil­ings ever since. Af­ter ob­tain­ing her law de­grees, she worked as a court in­ter­preter and then as a pros­e­cu­tor. In 1989, she was awarded a Ful­bright schol­ar­ship and flew to Duke Uni­ver­sity in North Carolina in the US, where she com­pleted a mas­ter’s de­gree in law. She also worked there for the Women’s Le­gal De­fense Fund.

On her re­turn to South Africa in the 1990s, Maya lec­tured be­fore be­com­ing an ad­vo­cate in the Mthatha High Court in the East­ern Cape – one of only a hand­ful of black women to do so at the time.

In 2000, at age 35, Maya was a high court judge.

Five years later, she was ap­pointed per­ma­nently to the ap­pel­late court in Bloem­fontein. And last year, she be­came its first fe­male deputy pres­i­dent. It was a me­te­oric rise in a fra­ter­nity no­to­ri­ous for its boys-club mind-set, its stuffy ap­pre­ci­a­tion of “tra­di­tion” and its struc­tural suf­fo­ca­tion of fe­male lawyers’ as­pi­ra­tions.

Maya’s judg­ments demon­strate a fiercely in­de­pen­dent mind at­tuned to the trans­for­ma­tive vi­sion of the Constitution. The ad­vo­cates who have ap­peared be­fore her have com­mended her “fine grasp of a board spec­trum of the law” in sub­mis­sions to the Ju­di­cial Ser­vice Com­mis­sion ( JSC).

A smart child, Maya had been marked by her com­mu­nity as a po­ten­tial doc­tor. But that changed on reg­is­tra­tion day at the then Uni­ver­sity of Transkei (now Wal­ter Sisulu Uni­ver­sity). Maya, flip­ping through the pages of a foren­sic medicine text­book that was ly­ing around, baulked at the im­agery and changed cour­ses af­ter chat­ting to her par­ents.

“It turned out that my fa­ther had al­ways seen a lawyer in me,” she told the JSC dur­ing her in­ter­view to per­ma­nently lead the SCA this week.

“Iron­i­cally, I had to do [foren­sic medicine] in my LLB course,” she laughed.

The el­dest of six chil­dren, Maya was born in Tsolo in the East­ern Cape, and at­tributes her suc­cess to her par­ents, Sandile and Nom­bulelo, both teach­ers. “All my good qual­i­ties I get from them,” she says. “My mum was strong, pas­sion­ate and in­de­pen­dent minded, which was rare in her gen­er­a­tion. My dad was a very lib­eral man. If I think back now on what he al­lowed me to do, I was raised to be­lieve that there was ab­so­lutely noth­ing that a boy could do that I couldn’t.”

So Maya chopped wood, con­fronted the bully boys in school and “ex­plored the free­dom” to try “ev­ery­thing and any­thing to be able to reach the highs that I have now reached”. “Self-be­lief – that is what my par­ents taught me.” We are chat­ting at the end of an ex­haust­ing week, dur­ing which the JSC has in­ter­viewed prospec­tive judges for var­i­ous po­si­tions on the Bench.

Maya, who was nom­i­nated by Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma to lead the ap­pel­late court, was in­ter­viewed on Mon­day be­fore switch­ing over to the other side of the panel to in­ter­view can­di­dates. As an in­ter­viewer, she is del­i­cate, em­pa­thetic and smart.

As an in­ter­vie­wee, she is eru­dite and cool, but blunt about the ra­cial and col­le­gial ten­sions di­vid­ing the court she will per­ma­nently head as soon as Zuma con­firms her ap­point­ment. Maya has de­scribed the SCA as a place where judges hang out along ra­cial lines and look down on ju­nior col­leagues’ abil­i­ties.

Her mo­ti­va­tion for these dis­clo­sures is sim­ple: “If you have a boil, you have to lance it – that is the only way it can heal. The ul­ti­mate goal is to re­solve the is­sues, and the first step is to speak openly about that.”

Man­disa Maya

Judge Man­disa Maya is the first wo­man to lead the Supreme Court of Ap­peal

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