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15/02/2022

As many across the country watched the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interviews for South Africa’s next chief justice, patriarchy, the script of meritocracy and power intersected in public view.

As many across the country watched the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interviews for South Africa’s next chief justice, patriarchy, the script of meritocracy and power intersected in public view.

In the third decade of South Africa’s democracy, it seemed unspectacular that, of the four nominees for chief justice, only one judge was a woman: Supreme Court of Appeal Judge President Mandisa Maya.

The others were Constitutional Court Justice Mbuyiseli Madlanga, Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo and acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.

It seemed unspectacular until commissioner Sylvia Lucas had the mettle to call it an “anomaly” and brought Maya to tears. This inconvenient, tearful moment may have startled both Lucas and Maya, but it made perfect sense for many senior professional women watching these proceedings.

For several hours before this point, and for a couple more after it, we would recognise the patterns of gaslighting, dismissal, undermining and sexual innuendo experienced in our own careers – and which we dare not respond to with visible emotion, whether pain or anger.

A lesson that girls and women learn early is that patriarchy has strict rules for women’s emotions: women’s anger is always illegitimate and black women’s tears only matter when they are for others’ pain.

Lucas reminded us that Maya’s credentials were so extensive that several national and international legal bodies had supported her nomination, telling her that “you have become the pallbearer for women’s aspirations”, while repeatedly underscoring the hardships and insisting that many were proud of Maya.

Lucas’ claim that many women are proud of Maya was an effective rejoinder against the shameful ways she had been reminded that she was “just a woman” by many commissioners in her interview. In other words, there was no question of Maya’s suitability for the highest judicial office in the land.

There was much to illustrate the snakes or perils of meritocracy as applied to women in Maya’s interview. To be clear, given her record on transformation, it makes sense that many questions posed to her addressed gender and the legal profession

Lucas was underscoring the litany of forms of evidence that Maya herself had presented. You do not become a legal giant such as Maya and muck about when it comes to the evidence.

Later in the interview, an exasperated commissioner, Mvuzo Notyesi, would further amplify Maya’s impeccable credentials of 640 court judgments, legal reports and jurisprudence, and point to concrete evidence of her superlative work on transformation across different measures.

Yet, in a context where women’s leadership is always under question, meritocratic promise collides with toxic masculinity in an attempt to cut down even the most exceptional achievers.

THE TRAPS OF MERITOCRACY

In Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and the Myths of Mobility, British feminist scholar Jo Littler adopts the metaphor of “snakes and ladders” to highlight the traps of meritocracy. Meritocracy “entails the idea that, whatever your social position at birth, society ought to offer enough opportunity and mobility for ‘talent’ to combine with ‘effort’ in order to ‘rise to the top’.”

The ladders ostensibly offer further and further escape from the muck of the starting point and ultimately enable the shattering of whatever ceilings may exist. Whereas “ladders” and “glass ceilings” are everywhere in public discourse about achievement, Littler also draws attention to the work of the metaphoric “snakes”, or less spoken-of perils of meritocratic thinking.

I got the impression that you are standing on your own credentials and not on the basis that you are a woman.

There was much to illustrate the snakes or perils of meritocracy as applied to women in Maya’s interview. To be clear, given her record on transformation, it makes sense that many questions posed to her addressed gender and the legal profession.

Commissioners Nomaswazi Shabangu-Mndawe, Doris Tshepe, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and Bulelani Magwanishe challenged Maya on the interpretation of transformation records, sexual harassment policy timelines, briefing patterns, recruitment of women, critically engaged arguments in Maya’s academic writing and the mental health of legal professionals, especially those who deal with cases of violence against women and girls.

These commissioners obliged Maya to articulate how she would sustain the existing superlative leadership record in future leadership choices. As is to be expected, many commissioners quizzed Maya in the manner expected of job interviews.

Yet too many abdicated this responsibility to remind Maya that they would only engage her as a woman through sexual innuendo, and they made demands that she speak for women leaders with no relevant connection to her and offered gratuitous reminders that she was a woman.

Defenders of commissioner Dali Mpofu’s shocking sexual innuendo, where he paused after suggesting he had once spent the night with Maya, before revealing the night was spent studying, argue that it was a poor attempt at humour.

More attentive observers will see the connection between the absence of a sexual harassment policy for the legal fraternity and the permissiveness of the sexual “joke” at Maya’s expense. Mpofu is intelligent enough to know that sexualising women at work makes them uncomfortable, at best, and undermines serious treatment, at worst.

Earlier, Mpofu had joined commissioner Julius Malema in a tangential tirade about the shortcomings of specific women leaders in banking and higher education who were found to be disloyal to women’s interests because of an inability to provide sanitary pads to poor students. By this point, Maya had reiterated her own record – one that is in the public domain – several times.

It is a small hop from measuring women leaders of institutions by the provision of sanitary pads to sexual innuendo at the expense of a woman whose record you cannot similarly dismiss. I was reminded of a One in Nine Campaign poster: “Women are not just faces and vaginas”.

I am trying to think of a woman who has risen to such majestic heights of success like you.

The third category of troubling gender performance fell into the category Maya had explicitly labelled as patronising, “well-intentioned” patriarchal trivialisation of women’s leadership.

Justice Minister Ronald Lamola set the tone: “I got the impression that you are standing on your own credentials and not on the basis that you are a woman.”

Maya responded: “I’m a judge. I’ve proven myself over 22 years. I’m not good because I am a woman; I’m just a good woman judge.”

He dismissed what she was actually saying by retorting: “I wanted you to say it.”

Up next, Northern Cape Judge President Pule Tlaletsi asked the woman who holds the second-highest judicial office in the country whether she was worthy of one step up: “Is South Africa ready for the appointment of a woman chief justice?”

Linking back to what she had said about “well-intentioned” patriarchal comments, Maya responded: “I appreciate the sentiment behind the question, but I don’t think it’s a proper question to ask because it implies all sorts of negative things. But the short answer is: South Africa has always been ready to have a woman chief justice.”

Importantly, she continued: “That question annoys a lot of women. I’ve had people say:

Was it ever asked if South Africa is ready for a black chief justice and, if not, why not? Why are we asking this about women?

Commissioner China Dodovu also piped up: “I am trying to think of a woman who has risen to such majestic heights of success like you.

“I’m very much impressed, I must say, and I very much hope that young women of this country will look at you and try to emulate your examples and vision, which is very important in the context of our country.”

This is a classic patronising patriarchal comment parading as a well-intentioned one. Not to be outdone, commissioner Narend Singh would speak about his disappointment that President Cyril Ramaphosa had ignored a previous round of recommendations by the JSC of “very capable women”.

“Do you have a view on that? Do you want to express a view? Because I certainly was very disappointed.”

Some of these were followed by serious questions. Others appeared to function merely as grandstanding.

However, at different points, commissioners could barely disguise their irritation over the ways in which toxic masculinity was on full display during Maya’s interview. Evidence of this ranged from Malema’s questioning of Tlaletsi’s mansplaining, and the denial of an often-circulated claim about men being overlooked in favour of women, to Notyesi using his time on the floor to rehearse a litany of achievements.

Notyesi was no doubt fatigued by the constant questioning of what was an available, verifiable record. Malema’s interventions in Maya’s interview twice pushed back against strategies of dismissing women’s work and reinscribed another.

For women who have been the first, the only or among a handful to enter senior leadership echelons, it made sense that Lucas’ gentle acknowledgment and recognition allowed Maya’s fatigue to bubble to the surface.

At a time when public discourse is saturated with appeals to celebrate women’s leadership as inevitable, there is too little time spent on what makes it so rare, and the toxicity that is a normalised part of that experience. The perils were on full display during Maya’s interview.

This article appeared in the City Press on 14 February 2022 written by Prof Pumla Dineo Gqola, an award-winning author and research professor at Nelson Mandela University.

https://www.news24.com/citypress/voices/jsc-interviews-sorry-display-of-toxic-masculinity-20220213

 

Contact information
Prof Pumla Gqola
Research Professor in the Centre for Women and Gender Studies and Chair for African Feminist Imaginations
Pumla.Gqola@mandela.ac.za