UP mourns the passing of Justice Yvonne Mokgoro

Posted on May 13, 2024

Dignity, justice and equality for all were the lifelong driving forces for Justice Yvonne Mokgoro, who passed away at the age of 73 on 9 May 2024 after being involved in a major car accident last year from which she never recovered.

Justice Mokgoro was a significant part of the University of Pretoria (UP) family. From the early 1990s, she was a part-time lecturer in UP’s Faculty of Law (UP Law), specifically the Departments of Legal History, Comparative Law, and Legal Philosophy (now the Department of Jurisprudence). In 2001, Justice Mokgoro received the Woman of Year Award in Law from UP’s Centre for Human Rights and in 2008, UP conferred an honorary doctorate on her. 

She served as a judge of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, which was appointed by President Nelson Mandela, from its inception in 1994 until the end of her 15-year term in 2009.

“Yvonne and Kate O’Regan were the first two women judges appointed to the Constitutional Court, and I was honoured to be the master of ceremonies at the farewell for them and for Albie Sachs and Pius Langa, all of whom served in the Constitutional Court for 15 years,” says Justice Johann van der Westhuizen, who became a professor in UP’s Faculty of Law in 1980 and was the founding director of the Centre for Human Rights in 1986. He subsequently served with Justice Mokgoro in the Constitutional Court, to which he was appointed in 2004.

Justice Van der Westhuizen appointed Justice Mokgoro to UP Law, where she became the first black woman academic to serve in the faculty.

“Rather than strict traditional lecturing or focusing solely on what students should expect in the exams, she encouraged open discussion in class, which some students complained about and others found refreshing,” he recalls.

“At her Constitutional Court farewell, I said that Yvonne was a walking embodiment of the values of the Constitution. She always responded with the utmost respect and professionalism, but over and above this, her personality shone through – she was empathetic and kind.”

Justice Van der Westhuizen has many anecdotes about his time with Justice Mokgoro in the Constitutional Court. A particularly challenging experience he recalls was when the conduct investigation of Judge President John Hlophe was presented to the Judicial Service Commission in 2008. During the investigation and prosecution of  then ANC President Jacob Zuma, Judge President Hlophe had tried to influence some Constitutional Court judges to rule in favour of former President Zuma, among other things. 

“Yvonne and I were appointed to be the liaisons of Judge Hlophe,” Justice Van der Westhuizen says. “What struck me was Yvonne’s response to him. She had felt sorry for him while knowing that what he had done was so wrong. There was none of the personal aggression one sometimes sees in these situations. It was simply a matter of standing up for the values of the Constitution and the independence of the judiciary.

“Another comment she made that stuck with me was during one of the reflection retreats we attended,” Justice Van der Westhuizen adds. “She said, ‘When I look around, I see that here I am on the world stage, me, the child of a domestic worker.’”

Justice Mokgoro grew up in Galeshewe township near Kimberley. She matriculated from St Boniface High School in 1970, before going on to study, mostly part-time, towards a Bachelor of Laws degree at what is now North-West University. She  graduated in 1982, obtaining an LLB two years later, and a Master of Laws (LLM) in 1987. Justice Mokgoro also studied at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, where she was awarded a second LLM degree in 1990.

Throughout her career, she taught several courses in law at universities in South Africa, the UK, the US and the Netherlands.

UP’s Prof Frans Viljoen, an expert in international human rights law and former Director of the Centre for Human Rights, got to know Justice Mokgoro when she was a lecturer at the University, where he started lecturing in the early 1990s. 

“I was a junior colleague at the time, and she was always very approachable and kind – she had a wonderful, poised, professional presence,” he says. 

Prof Viljoen adds that Justice Mokgoro was one of three judges in the first group of Constitutional Court judges (including Kate O’Regan and Albie Sachs) who came from academia rather than from the ranks of legal practitioners. 

“Today, we see some resistance to academics being appointed, and the question is whether people without a practising legal background can be excellent judges,” Prof Viljoen says. “All three affirmed this beyond any doubt. During their time in the Constitutional Court, they made a phenomenal contribution.”

Justice Mokgoro also wrote many papers and participated in countless national and international conferences and workshops on human rights and customary law, focusing on the impact of law on women and children in particular. In comparative law, she focused on what has influenced South African law and how it is developing.

“Justice Mokgoro often spoke about how important it was for her to serve in the Constitutional Court to contribute to access to justice for all South Africans as a human right,” says Prof Viljoen, adding that during her time at the Constitutional Court, she continued to sit on the advisory board for UP’s Centre for Human Rights.

In 2021, she was appointed as Chair of the United Nations’ Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement. She and two other renowned experts, Dr Tracie Keesee and Prof Juan Méndez, conducted country missions around the world in this regard. 

“It reflected her stature in the international arena,” Prof Viljoen says. 

The University mourns Justice Mokgoro’s passing, honours her memory and sends its deepest condolences to her family.


- Author University of Pretoria

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