Address by Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon JH Jeffery, MP at a farewell function in honour of Chief Magistrate Helen Alman, held at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel, Woodstock, 27 October 2017
Chief Magistrate Alman
Members of the Alman family
Chief Magistrates and judicial officers
Ladies and gentlemen, friends
It is a great privilege for me to be here this evening as we pay tribute to someone who is not just a judicial officer, but has become somewhat of an institution in her own right, in our courts.
I don’t think there are many people in the broader justice family who don’t know Helen Alman - with many having appeared before her in her distinguished career which spans 37 years.
After matriculating from Northcliff High School, Johannesburg in 1974, she came to UCT and completed her BA in 1977 and thereafter her LLB.
She became a Public Prosecutor in Wynberg in January 1980, then became an Additional Magistrate at Wynberg in December 1986 and later a senior Magistrate in September 2001. She became a chief magistrate in September 2010.
She has been involved in some rather interesting cases and with some well-known, or should I say, infamous personalities. Some of you may remember the candidate attorney, who illegally represented clients in the regional court, and the case of Mark Thatcher and the trial of Dina Rodrigues.
In the latter case, Magistrate Alman had to testify about the confession made to her by one of the hitmen, who was later found guilty along with Rodrigues.
Today our Magistrates’ Courts continue to be the first port of call for access to justice for most people - with 740 court houses countrywide, of which 154 are periodical courts and 180 are branch courts.
Often our magistrates are the very face of the law. Our Magistrates’ Courts are at the forefront of people’s interaction with the law and the justice system, and our Magistrates’ Courts have indeed evolved and adapted with time – as have our magistrates.
For a court to render a service it must be supported by officials and other role players who are committed to serve the public and the cause of justice – in particular the needs of the poor and most vulnerable.
This is something Helen does with distinction.
In 2013, when riot shields that could dispense an electric charge were used to shock children at the Bosasa Horizon Children’s Centre in Eerste River – a centre used to house children under the age of 18 who were awaiting trial for criminal charges – Chief Magistrate Alman said that although correctional services were legally allowed to carry such riot equipment, which could non-lethally incapacitate a person, the equipment could never be used on children.
And she didn’t leave it there.
She took the matter up with the provincial Department of Social Development, but when she found the response from the acting department head to be inadequate, she referred the matter to the South African Human Rights Commission.
Ladies and gentlemen, today our law faculties have more female law students than males. Of the number of LLB graduates in 2016, 2777 were female and 2145 male.
Yet, in the legal profession, the number of women is still lower with, for example, 1312 female candidate attorneys versus 1701 males this year.
For women with careers in the justice system, especially those who entered before the advent of democracy, it has been an arduous journey.
And, despite, more than two decades of freedom, gender bias still exists. For example, over the years, female candidates appearing before the Judicial Services Commission have been asked questions that nobody would dream to ask their male counterparts.
In the book, The Judiciary in South Africa by Hoexter and Olivier, it tells of how, during a 2005 interview for the position of Deputy Judge President of North Gauteng, Judge Anna-Marie de Vos was telling the Commission about how some of the older male judges had been rather sexist in their dealing with her, when a Commissioner of the JSC interjected: “sexy or sexist?”
And it got worse, she was then asked about her sexual orientation and whether that might adversely affect perceptions of her in judicial leadership.
When Professor Penny Andrews, who was based in the USA at the time, was interviewed for a positon on the Constitutional Court in the same year, she was asked what it would take for her to return to South Africa – when a Commissioner interjected with “find a South African boyfriend”.
And before being appointed to the Constitutional Court Kate O’Regan was asked who would look after her children if she became a judge.
Of course, no such questions are ever posed to the male candidates.
At the same time, whilst we continue to fight gender prejudice, we have come a long way in attaining better representivity in the magistracy.
Olga Ruth Mann, was appointed as South Africa’s first female magistrate in 1963 – she was born in KZN and joined the Department of Justice in 1943 as a short-hand typist, whilst studying part-time. In 1959 she became the first female regional court prosecutor and then our first female magistrate 4 years later.
Very little is known about her, except that she married a fellow magistrate, a Mr Arend Brink, and could speak Afrikaans, English and Zulu fluently. Apparently at the time of her appointment as first female magistrate, when asked for her response, she simply said “I worked for it.”
Today, out of a total of 1670 magistrates, 749 are female, which is 45%. Of the 9 Regional Court Presidents, 4 are female and of the 20 Chief Magistrates, 12 are female. So although much progress has been made, much more needs to be done.
It is also important that we all benefit from the expertise, skills and experience of judicial officers who have presided over cases for many years.
As you are aware, with the recent amendment to the Magistrates Act of 1993, it will now be possible for magistrates to hold office until the age of 70 without having to first obtain approval from the Minister, after consultation with the Magistrates’ Commission.
We have already consulted with the Magistrates Commission and will approach the President for this section of the Act to be put into operation with effect from 1 December 2017.
This provision will not only bring the retirement age of magistrates in line with that of judges, but will, as I have mentioned, enable all of us to benefit from their experience and wisdom.
I want to thank Helen for her many years of selfless service to the people of our country and in the pursuit of justice.
Whether it was to ensure the optimal functioning of our courts or the Small Claims Courts’ Commissioners training – which she undertook annually and which was very close to her heart – she did it with passion and total dedication. She has been an inspiration and a role model to other women working in the justice system.
It has been a pleasure and an honour working with you and we will most certainly miss you.
May this new phase of your life be one of happiness, some rest, more relaxation, new endeavours and having more time to enjoy the things you love.
May you cherish the past - with the memories of all you’ve achieved in nearly 40 years of service, may you celebrate today and always look forward to tomorrow.