MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Black women still battle to enter spaces of power
JOHANNESBURG - On Wednesday, Judge Mandisa Maya walked through a fire pit into which many Black women have been burnt alive. With her bare feet, she stood in the scorching embers as one after another, a panel of interviewers callously poured petrol and danced joyfully as pieces of her flesh melted from her body. She came out of the ordeal alive, but the third-degree burns that she suffered on her body will leave scars. While this might sound like something from an RL Stine novel, it is the perfect metaphor to describe the interview of the only woman candidate for the position of the next Chief Justice of the Republic of South Africa. What happened to Judge Maya in that Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interview is a grave injustice to which no woman should be condemned.
The Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola set the tone for how the interview would unfold. His very first question to Judge Maya was a request that she reassure the commissioners that she was standing as the Chief Justice on her own merits and not on the basis of her gender. This is a woman who is presently serving as the president of the Supreme Court of Appeals (SCA) and who has diligently served as the chairperson of the South African Law Reform Commission, among other positions. That such a statement was uttered is an unforgivable insult not only on Judge Maya but on all women who are constantly being reduced to their gender. No man is ever asked about whether he is standing for any position on the basis of merit or gender, and it is never insinuated that a man’s gender might in any way pose an impediment to his capacity to perform his professional duties.
The question was not asked of Judge Mbuyiseli Madlanga, who had been interviewed the day before, or Judge President Dunston Mlambo, who was interviewed the day after Judge Maya.
Lamola’s question laid the foundation for the abuse that Judge Maya would suffer throughout an interview that was, in many ways, a mirror on the reality of being a Black woman leader in a South Africa that insists on infanticising women. She was asked a question that is always asked of women who dare to contest power: “Is South African ready for a female …?” In her case, it was for a “female” Chief Justice, but in another context, it was for a “female” president. In 2017, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a formidable woman who had just returned to South Africa after serving as the chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contested for the presidency of the African National Congress against current president, Cyril Ramaphosa. The entirety of her campaign was reduced to her gender. Here was a woman who had served the South African government at an executive level, and who had just served the executive/administrative branch of the African Union. But discussions around her candidacy were often littered with the question of her readiness to lead the country. It was so blatant that the public broadcaster had to issue an apology for referring to her as “Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife” as though she had no identity and no profile of her own.
The injustice that Judge Maya suffered in that interview included distasteful locker-room sexist jokes from Advocate Dali Mpofu, who saw it prudent to make a declaration that she had “spent a night together” with Judge Mlambo. Mpofu was referring him and Judge Maya having worked through the night studying while doing their pupillage, but the innuendo was not lost on him, the interviewing panel or the general public that was glued to their televisions. It was not by accident that after making the statement, he paused for effect before clarifying what he meant. It was also telling that no-one saw it necessary to caution against such conduct despite its complete distastefulness. But in a world where patriarchy is so normalised, it does not shock me that such inappropriate conduct was glibly dismissed.
Some of the questions that were asked of Judge Maya were unthinkable, but perhaps one of the most devastating statements came from commissioner Sylvia Lucas, who stated that the judge had become the “pole-bearer” for women in the country. This might have sounded like something positive to say but in reality, it is another form of violence that Black women in particular have been subjected to in our country. The glacial pace of transformation has meant that Black women are still battling to access spaces of power. The result has been that those who do are expected to shoulder the heavy burden of transforming institutions that are resistant to change, with minimal support if any at all. When Black women head powerful institutions, there’s an unreasonable expectation that they can single-handedly bring about absolute change. It happened to Dr Dlamini-Zuma, who was expected to single-handedly bring absolute change in an AU Commission that has decades of patriarchy steeped into it. At the time
when she was elected to the commission in 2012, only two of the 54 member states of the AU were led by women. Mauritius’s Ameenah Gurib-Fakim would be elected three years later. Heteronormative patriarchy was embedded in the AU and all its organs – and continues to be. Yet, she was often judged on what she had done for women’s emancipation, treating it as something superficial as opposed to a structural and systematic construct.
Judge Maya has already been set up for the same failure. Should she be appointed as the next Chief Justice, she faces an uphill battle of not only strengthening a judicial system that has been systematically weakened, but she is expected to transform an institution that is a reflection of the rootedness of patriarchy. It will be used as a yardstick by which to measure her legacy, just as it was the case with Dr Dlamini-Zuma at the AU. No-one can single-handedly change an institution, and when she battles to, which is inevitable, it will be said that women are incapable of leading. With this, the next woman who dares to contest power will be asked: “Is South Africa ready for a female…?”
Mahlatsi is a geographer, urban planner and research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation.