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Judge Mandisa Maya shares her concerns about South Africa and what she's itching to do

By Naledi Shange | 2017-06-20 15:05:22.0

The Bloemfontein office on the upper floor of the Supreme Court of Appeal where Justice Mandisa Maya — the first female to occupy the post of President of the SCA in South Africa — conducts her duties from‚ exudes a strong masculine feel‚ with dark couches and wooden cabinets laden with books‚ awards and art work hanging on the wall.

“I actually think having a woman in the office is a good thing. It is a fact — studies have proven this over and over again — women make better managers. Their style of management is all encompassing. It is inclusive‚ they are empathetic; they are consultative. They are able to easily move everyone along with the rest of everyone. I don’t foresee any special challenges because I am a woman‚” a soft-spoken yet assertive Maya told TimesLIVE.

 Ironically‚ Maya — who now occupies the third highest position in the country’s judiciary‚ after the Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice — says studying law was never part of the plan.

 “I thought I was going to be a doctor. I was persuaded that I was doctor material‚” Maya said‚ relaxing in a leather couch placed in the middle of her office.

 “I was turned off by the notion of studying medicine after seeing a medical textbook with all the pictures. One had not really thought about what studying medicine entails and I saw that they do post mortems‚ deal with blood and gall and all that. As fickle as that may sound‚ that is what turned me off‚” she said.

“And then my dad started nudging me along this direction. He thought I would be better suited for law because I had a strong attitude for languages‚ I was always a very inquisitive child. I questioned everything and was very rebellious.”

 Maya‚ a married mother of three‚ admits her achievements have come with sacrifices‚ which included being away from her children when they were young.

“It is a myth that women can juggle a lot‚” she says‚ adding that one thing was bound to suffer as she gave focus to another.

 Despite this‚ her eldest daughter has chosen to follow in her footsteps and is advancing a career in law.

 Judge Maya’s schedule is packed‚ but she demonstrated a warm and unrushed demeanour during our early morning meeting in her chambers. Wearing a grey skirt and jacket suit‚ she shared her views on the state of the country‚ the state of the judiciary and her plans going forward.

 While her appointment has mostly been welcomed‚ a friend forwarded her some commentary from social media after the May announcement by President Jacob Zuma‚ including one in which a critic questioned whether she had been captured‚ labelling her as “Zuma’s type”.

“I will not stand on any mountain and proclaim that I am not captured and I am not a Zuma woman‚” Maya says with a smile.

 “My work will speak for myself. That is all I can say.”

While gender advancement may have played a role in her securing the post‚ she says‚ her experience made her a suitable candidate.

 Her peers agree.

 Two legal representatives who have worked with Maya before her appointment as SCA president‚ described her as meticulous in executing her judgments‚ adding that she was “perfect” for the job.

The perfectionist in her showed‚ as she shifted the gold scales and large world globe on her desk ahead of a photograph being taken.

 When Maya was interviewed for the position before the Judicial Services Commission earlier this year‚ she made startling revelations of the divisions which existed in the SCA amongst judges serving at the court. She revealed how black judges occupied one side of the tearoom and white judges occupied the other.

 After Judge Maya stepped in as Acting President of the SCA‚ she took judges to diversity seminars where integration was fostered.

 She showed reluctance to speak on these issues‚ saying “they have all moved on” and focus needed to be given on other issues‚ such as gender representation in the court.

 “There are very few women judges in the court. I am itching and salivating to change that‚” she said‚ adding that she would be on the lookout for competent female judges.

 She also expressed concern over the manual paper systems still used by the court‚ saying they had “one of the best libraries in the continent” but still used the old library card system of locating books.

 The same system was used for storing court papers.

 “If this building burned down‚ everything would go with that fire‚” she said.

 While the fate of many and the decisions on crucial issues at times lie solely in the hands of justice system‚ Maya stressed that judges are human too.

 “We are not Solomon. You can’t always make the right decision‚” Maya said– referring to the wise King Solomon from the Bible.

 Looking back at her judicial career‚ one case where she felt it was hard to exercise the wisdom of King Solomon happened years back as she practiced as a magistrate in Butterworth.

 There‚ she convicted an abused woman in her 20s of murder. The woman was a mother of two who was angry that her husband had started an affair with a younger lover in a shack that they once shared.

 “He was close to 40 and she was in her teens around 17 or 18 (when they got married). When she was in her 20s‚ he started abusing her. There was a very young girl and he would insist on bringing her to their home. Ultimately‚ he kicked her out of the shack‚ their home‚” said Maya.

 “She decided to get petrol and douse the shack with it in the middle of the night and set it alight. Her husband and this young girl died in there. So she was charged with murder.”

 Maya said she was haunted by what happened to the women’s two young children and saw that the woman herself was a victim in the situation.

 “I kept thinking‚ she probably had a battered woman’s syndrome. Maybe this man was cruel‚ was a predator who exploited young girls because he had had another lover before he married her. It was a vicious circle.”

 In recent weeks‚ the country has been reeling at a number of young women who were killed and‚ at times burnt to ashes‚ by men known to them.

 Maya said she was stumped by it all.

 “Violence against women is nothing new in our society‚ come to think of it‚ but now it has taken another dimension where young women seem to be at a particular risk and one just doesn’t know where that comes from‚” she said.

She said she had also seen numerous cases where elderly women were killed in the most gruesome manner when they were suspected of being witches.

 “We need to go back and cure the cause. I don’t know what the cause is but clearly we are a deeply wounded society‚” she said.

 Asked to comment on the status of the country‚ Judge Maya acknowledged that South Africa was facing tribulations.

 “The country faces serious challenges. I can only speak for the judiciary. A huge amount of the work that comes into courts today concerns disputes that challenge decisions made by other arms of government.

“It is unfortunate but that is our reality and courts have their constitutional mandate to carry out and adjudicate those cases if they have the power to hear them. We have the laws to deal with these situations.”

 What is next for the woman who holds one of the most powerful judicial seats in the country?

“I don’t have five and ten year plans. I take each day as it comes. I work hard every day‚ and in five or ten years‚ I will have achieved whatever goals and crossed off things on my bucket list as I go along‚” she said.

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