Women are not a proxy: Why the Constitution requires feminist judges

Authors Mateenah Hunter, Tim Fish Hodgson, Catharine Thorpe

ISSN: 1996-2126
Affiliations: Policy Development and Advocacy Fellow at Sonke Gender Justice; Legal Researcher at SECTION27; Researcher at the Judicial College of Victoria
Source: South African Journal on Human Rights, Volume 31 Issue 3, 2015, p. 579 – 606


The South African Constitution entrenches the achievement of equality as a founding value and the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms as a right and prohibits discrimination based on both sex and gender. Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression and to end all forms of gender discrimination. The Constitution, at its core, therefore embodies a feminist ideology. This has implications for the interpretation and application of all law and policy, including s 174 of the Constitution which requires the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to consider ‘the need for the judiciary to reflect broadly the racial and gender composition of South Africa when judicial officers are appointed’. Broadly, the JSC’s conduct between 1994 and 2014 evidences a failure to understand both gender and its constitutional mandate in terms of s 174 to proactively pursue the appointment of both female and feminist judges. Attempts to appoint more women, absent an appropriate understanding of gender, have resulted in both subtle and overt discrimination against female candidates for judicial selection. In order to remedy its misguided approach and fulfil its mandate the JSC must produce detailed guidelines on its approach to gender transformation of the judiciary, grounded in a feminist understanding of the Constitution. A unified feminist movement which embraces South Africa’s feminist Constitution, with the support of a broad coalition of human rights advocacy groups and activist organisations, is urgently needed to guide the JSC in its understanding of feminism and gender, but also to hold the JSC to account when it betrays this mandate. Women are not a proxy for feminism; the South African judiciary is in dire need of a more feminist face.