Justice Maya poised to make history

South Africa’s first female chief justice, Deputy Chief Justice Mandisa Maya shared her vision for an independent, accountable and responsive judiciary. Picture: Timothy Bernard/Independent Newspapers

South Africa’s first female chief justice, Deputy Chief Justice Mandisa Maya shared her vision for an independent, accountable and responsive judiciary. Picture: Timothy Bernard/Independent Newspapers

Published May 22, 2024


Ready, able and willing to be appointed as South Africa’s first female chief justice, Deputy Chief Justice Mandisa Maya shared her vision for an independent, accountable and responsive judiciary.

“Being appointed to the Constitutional Court is the highest honour, especially in a leadership position,” Justice Maya said during her interview as sole candidate for the highest judicial position in the country before the Judicial Service Commission.

While Chief Justice Raymond’s Zondo is retiring in August, President Cyril Ramaphosa has nominated Justice Maya as his successor. She, however, still had to go through the interview process.

Justice Maya was interviewed in 2022 for this top position and found suitable for this appointment by the JSC, but Ramaphosa at the time decided to appoint Justice Zondo.

But she is no stranger to the ConCourt, as she joined this court in September 2022, where she has written three of her own judgments to date.

Justice Maya said it was the biggest moment and highest honour in her life when she was appointed to the apex court.

She acknowledged that the job of chief justice is one of enormous responsibility. The past 20 months at the ConCourt has given her a taste of what the job would entail.

“And I must say it has been a sobering experience.”

She said when she joined the ConCourt after heading the Supreme Court of Appeal, it was “a rude awakening”.

“I have not worked as hard in my life as during the past 20 months. That court is extremely busy.”

But, Justice Maya said, she believed that they can tweak a few things to streamline their operations. She told the commission that the ConCourt’s caseload was so big that “one can feel overwhelmed,” but she would like to think that she had coped thus far.

“The work is exhilarating, but extremely hard.”

Justice Maya added that while there was immense pressure on the apex court, especially with it having to deal with more cases, each word it uttered must be weighed in gold. She said the prize would be to get judgments with which everyone agreed, but this is not always possible.

Commenting on the rate at which judgments are delivered at the ConCourt, Justice Maya acknowledged it can take time, sometimes up to seven months or longer.

“You can’t hurry judgments of the apex court. We have to take extra care.” She said once a judgment is out, it ends with this court, which is a complicating factor.

In assuring the commission that she was ready for the task should she be appointed as chief justice, Justice Maya said she had already performed some of these functions in the absence of Chief Justice Zondo.

Sharing some of her visions for the judiciary if she is appointed, she said the country faces many serious challenges, so the need for an accountable judiciary has never been greater.

Her wish list for the judiciary is for a dignified, independent system in which the public has confidence.

“If I’m appointed for this position, I know that I will bear the enormous responsibility of ensuring that the institution remains strong,” she said.

“I want to confess that the candidate you see here today is a very different one to the one you interviewed in 2022. The person who sits in front of you today is older and seasoned.”

Justice Maya added that during her time at the ConCourt she gained valuable experience. “I got the opportunity to experience what the job entails. I must say it has been a sobering experience.... This job is difficult to say the least, but I am confident now more than ever that I can do it.”

In joking with Chief Justice Zondo, she said: “There is absolutely nothing attractive about your job.”

Some of her key priorities are to attain full independence of the judiciary which includes bringing the lower courts under the jurisdiction of the chief justice.

In addressing the issue of the increasing case load on judges, she said a solution could be to have panels of three retired judges or lawyers, sifting through leave to appeal applications.

This, she said, would give the ConCourt justices time to write judgments more speedily.

Her proposal, she said, was for the panels to dispose of the leave to appeal applications, but to refer matters of national importance to the 11 other justices to decide. Asked by Justice Zondo who would decide if a matter was of national importance, she replied that this will be the chief justice, in conjunction with the other justices. “The panel will be able to make the call, but they will not make it on their own. They could write to the full court in this regard,” she said.

But, Justice Maya pointed out, this was just a proposal at this stage.

She also spoke of the increased case load on the Judicial Conduct Committee, who were receiving an increasing number of complaints made against judges. The committee has six judges who are all from other divisions and who have to do this work, as well as their own.

She acknowledged that this was the reason why some complaints had taken a long time to be adjudicated and said the solution was to rope in more retired judges to deal with these complaints.

Overall, Justice Maya said, the courts were receiving more cases which had to be dealt with by the same number of judges. She said she was horrified to hear that the SCA only had three researchers among 25 judges.

“It is a miracle that it can still perform as it does,” she said.

But, Justice Maya said, while facing all these challenges, she was up for the task ahead, should she be appointed.

President Ramaphosa meanwhile has the final say following Tuesday’s interview.

Pretoria News