In what is viewed by most citizens of Zimbabwe as a historic step, public interviews for the selection of Supreme Court judges were held in Harare yesterday. Of the ten candidates, four were women. Two of the women candidates failed to differentiate between a court action and a court application, an elementary aspect of Civil Procedure in Zimbabwean law, much like the distinction between debiting and crediting in Accounting. Their responses to the effect that the question was “too technical” and that they would “read up on it when elevated” were the cause of much hilarity for the gallery, which was mostly composed of lawyers, law students and journalists.
Yet, for any woman lawyer sat in the room, the reaction was more intricate – a melange of surprise, anger, embarrassment and shame.
It is accepted that the fight for gender equality in the legal profession in Zimbabwe – and throughout the world – is ongoing and vicious. This is not assisted by the fact that, until 1982, women in Zimbabwe were considered perpetual minors who lacked legal and contractual capacity. It is not surprising therefore that. at independence in 1980, there were no female judges in the High Court or the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe. The Supreme Court building was set up to house three male Justices only and had no facilities for female justices. There has never been a female Chief Justice or Deputy Chief Justice in Zimbabwe, nor has there ever been a female silk. To date, no woman has ever been appointed to the post of Attorney-General. Zimbabwe has never appointed a female Minister of Justice.
The injustice of this state of affairs is self-evident. There has to be a problem with a system that permits only male lawyers to be promoted to the top legal posts in this jurisdiction. At the same time, being a woman – in and of itself – does not not equip one with a sound legal mind. Confidence, intellectual and analytical ability, strong written and oratory skills, charm and integrity do.
Against this backdrop, the issue concerning how to achieve female representation in the judiciary in Zimbabwe without compromising on quality remains a vexed question. (This is obviously not to suggest that the women currently on the bench in Zimbabwe are of inferior quality – the record of several women jurists in Zimbabwe speaks for itself.) The Zimbabwean solution to ensure female judicial representation has been to implement a quota system. In terms of section 184 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, “appointments to the judiciary must reflect broadly the diversity and gender composition of Zimbabwe.” The intention of the legislature in enacting this provision is clear: quotas are the quickest way to ensure women are elevated to the bench. Quotas can remove some of the structural barriers that prevent women from being appointed as judges, so the argument goes.
Yet, quite unwittingly, installing a quota system for judicial appointments is akin to affixing a band-aid to a fractured wound: various underlying problems remain.
Most importantly, an unfair impression is created that the women who have been elevated to judicial posts are there merely because they are women. Quotas in general are offensive and create the impression that, unless a special dispensation is created for women, we cannot succeed. Women who are elevated to the bench are thus perceived to be substandard, incompetent, elevated only due to an accident of biology. Additionally, women elevated through quotas are seen as “token”, may generally be less respected and will have less influence. Quotas also set women against each other, competing for a certain number of “women’s seats”, which might destroy co-operation and unity. Equally, it can be argued with great force that quotas distort the idea of representation because they create the false impression that only women can protect the rights and interests of women. The quota system also implies that women are to confine themselves to branches of law where there the issue of gender is relevant such as family law and the law of inheritance, to the exclusion of other branches of law such as the law of banking and negotiable instruments, tax law, insurance law and the law of insolvency. With so much emphasis on gender quotas in the new constitution and the current government, women are still, in some cases, only ‘getting’ something because of their gender. Unfortunately, even to this day, if a woman gets elevated to the bench, it would still be questioned whether she was actually the best candidate.
There is only one answer: one must be, first and foremost, a judge, with all the poise, competence and disposition that comes with the role – not merely a woman holding judicial office. Those who push for quotas for women don’t understand that the jurisprudential x-factor and internalized principles are what make outstanding judges, male or female. Our attitude and approach in this regard has to change. The capabilities of junior women lawyers must be nurtured from an early stage. Having more and more judges, who so happen to be women, will not transform the legal landscape.
One cannot ride affirmative action, identity politics or third-wave feminism to reach the legal hall of fame.
There, I said it.