Mandisa Maya to become South Africa’s first woman chief justice

Mandisa Maya

Mandisa Maya is set to become South Africa's next chief justice. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • As the first woman to hold such a position in the country’s history, it seems like a reward for a judge who has stayed away from controversy.

Mandisa Maya is set to lead South Africa's judiciary for the next 10 years, after the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), which oversees senior judicial appointments, decided on Tuesday to recommend her appointment as Chief Justice by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

As the first woman to hold such a position in the country’s history, it seems like a reward for a judge who has stayed away from controversy.

However, the position itself is increasingly the focus of political contention, as is the entire legal system, which is part based on Roman-Dutch and part on English jurisprudence.

Since the multi-party negotiations of 1992/93, some radical elements have been criticizing those political agreements, along with the resulting constitution, as effectively entrenching land theft and other colonial-era excesses, as well as the apartheid race-based system which shaped the modern urban landscapes of this still-divided country.

But these voices were drowned out by the vast majority’s acceptance of a new deal in what has been the ‘land of apartheid,’ leaving the biases embedded in an inherited legal system to be sorted out by post-apartheid administrations.

For the likes of former President Jacob Zuma and his newly minted uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, only a complete rewrite of the entire structure of the law is sufficient.

Zuma himself is still facing 783 counts of fraud, corruption, and money laundering charges arising from alleged kickbacks during a late 1990s arms deal.

He is desperate to have both the ‘Eurocentric’ laws of South Africa changed and the negotiated constitution thrown out, advocating for a reversion to something akin to slightly modernized traditional tribal law. Recently, the courts struck his name off the ballot due to his past conduct, including a jail term he served for contempt of court.

Along with MK, Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have blown hot and cold over South Africa’s legal structures.

Malema and a few of his close lieutenants have also come under legal scrutiny over possible state capture-style graft or other alleged improprieties.

At one point, the EFF, which is overtly Pan-Africanist, was arguing against its own policies when anti-immigrant sentiments were running high amid further bouts of violent xenophobia.

The party argued that the bar for successful amnesty applications was too low, allowing too many people into the country.

The EFF’s stance seems more closely related to the direct effects of the law on the party leaders than any underlying ideological issues. However, it maintains a strong line that should it gain power, it will wield existing and any new laws with vigor, believing in the centralization of power in a Marxist-Leninist state system.

Both MK and the EFF also say they want all major industries nationalized.

Together, these two political alignments could garner at least a quarter of the vote in the elections due on Wednesday next week, according to the latest opinion polls.

This may not pose a direct or immediate threat to South Africa’s current legal framework.

However, there is a growing populist sentiment that ‘old colonial laws and systems must go,’ even though most of those supporting such calls have little idea of the implications.

Outgoing Chief Justice Raymond Zondo was something of a ‘controversial’ choice when appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in April 2022, despite being ‘next in line’ as Deputy Chief Justice.

This was due to his four-year stint as chair of the commission of inquiry into state capture graft, ironically signed into law by then outgoing President Zuma as one of his last official acts before being forced to resign by his own ruling African National Congress (ANC) party in 2018.

This means that Justice Maya’s new role brings her the task of managing the politics related to the calls for a change in the legal framework, along with the potential legal dramas that may ensue over how to go about such changes.

Born in March 1964 in the then apartheid-era ‘black homeland’ of Transkei, now the Eastern Cape province, Mandisa Muriel Lindelwa Maya was appointed Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa soon after missing out on the top slot in 2022 to Justice Zondo.

She has had a stellar career from humble beginnings and was formerly the president of the Supreme Court of Appeal from 2017 to 2022.

Initially a prosecutor and state law adviser, she was admitted as an advocate in 1994.

Former President Thabo Mbeki appointed her to the Supreme Court of Appeal in June 2006. In the appellate court, she was elevated to the deputy presidency in September 2015 and the presidency in May 2017.

She was the first black woman to serve in the Supreme Court of Appeal, as well as the court's first woman deputy president and first woman president.