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.