Newsmaker: SA’s newest ConCourt judge raises the Bar

2015-11-30 11:00
Judge Nonkosi Mhlantla has been appointed to the highest court in the land

Judge Nonkosi Mhlantla has been appointed to the highest court in the land PHOTO: ELIZABETH SEJAKE

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Judge Nonkosi Mhlantla had mapped out her life perfectly. Having been appointed a Supreme Court of Appeal judge in 2009, she planned to stay in Bloemfontein until 2017.

But that came to an end after a phone call from Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng early in 2012. He told her he wanted her in the Constitutional Court as an acting judge and ordered her to report for duty in Johannesburg as early as February of that year.

“I didn’t have a chance to think about whether I should even consider it. I said: ‘Fine, CJ, I don’t have a problem,’” reveals the newly confirmed permanent justice of the Constitutional Court.

It has not been an easy road to the top for Mhlantla.

In the early 1990s, when things were not going well for her, she resorted to selling cutlery and crockery to pay her car instalments and insurance.

At the time, she was a junior lawyer dealing in labour matters and arbitration, but the money wasn’t coming in.

However, she persevered at a time when many of her peers left the legal profession to seek better-paying jobs.

Years later, she became a senior advocate and her career prospects gradually improved until she was appointed to the high court, before being elevated to the supreme court as an acting judge in 2008.

Now, having been confirmed as one of the 11 esteemed justices of the highest court in the land, it has, in her own words, been “a long, thorny journey”.

Welcoming City Press to her office at the supreme court building, Mhlantla looks resplendent in stilettos, a vintage cream jacket and matching skirt embroidered with flowers. The pearls around her neck match her earrings, and her hair is neatly plaited in cornrows.

As with many judges, her office is decorated by a wooden shelf with stacks of law books that she uses for reference when penning judgments. But her desk is neatly organised, with a framed graduation picture of her daughter standing out.

The soft-spoken Mhlantla tells City Press that her appointment shows strides are being made, but there is still a long way to go for women on the Bench.

“You can’t have 11 judges in the [Constitutional] Court and [only] two are women. The court must be more representative. But I feel we are moving in the right direction and, hopefully, will have one or two more women joining us. That would be an ideal situation,” she says.

Mhlantla adds that the low representation of females on the Bench can be attributed to the fact that most young women who graduate choose to join the private sector instead of their local bar councils to practise public law.

“Being at the Bar is not easy for women – often, they have to take care of their children and homes. We are the ones who have to do most of the work. You find that you have to take time off.

“In this profession, when you take [an extended period of] time off, you come back only to start right at the bottom. These are some of the problems,” she says.

“Some women prefer to go to the private sector instead of coming here. That means you are losing potential candidates.”

Mhlantla, who was one of the judges who recently heard the National Prosecuting Authority’s appeal against Paralympian Oscar Pistorius’ murder conviction, says it is not easy for women who run the course and stay in the profession.

Mhlantla says that being called to the Constitutional Court as an acting judge gave her the opportunity to gain valuable juristic experience.

“I preferred to first serve in an acting position to gain the experience. Of course I was scared. It’s the highest court in the land. I’d heard stories and didn’t know how I was going to fare when I went there.

“But I must say, it was a pleasant surprise when I found great colleagues. I just grew. I was able to work freely and the assistance was there. We agreed and disagreed, but it was a wonderful year.”

Mhlantla returned to the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein last year.

The Constitutional Court vacancy was then advertised and she accepted nomination.

Interviews were conducted and her 25 years of experience as a lawyer and judge put her ahead of the three other women interviewed by the Judicial Service Commission.

“I’m elated. At first, I was shocked when I heard [about my appointment]; I even cried.”

Mhlantla (51) was an attorney for 12 years, then spent six years as a small claims court commissioner.

She became an acting judge of the Eastern Cape High Court in April 2000. She was confirmed to that Bench in 2002 and spent six years there until her appointment in an acting capacity to the Supreme Court of Appeal. 

Not much will change in her routine when she moves to Johannesburg next month.

The single mother of a 28-year-old daughter says she will still commute home to the Eastern Cape now and again to see her family. She has been doing the commute for years.

She concedes that her career has been stressful, but she is used to it.

“Of course you are not home on holidays; you are home with your records, preparing for your next matter.”

Will Judge Nonkosi Mhlantla’s appointment to the Constitutional Court inspire other women in the male dominated legal profession?

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