Op-Ed: Women's rights - have they come full circle?

Posted on August 16, 2018

On 9 August 2018, South Africa celebrated National Women’s Day. The day commemorates the 1956 march of approximately 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to petition against the country's pass laws that required South Africans defined as "black" under The Population Registration Act to carry an internal passport, known as a pass, that served to maintain population segregation, control urbanisation, and manage migrant labour during the apartheid era.

This is also an opportunity to remind us to accelerate the process of the United Nations’ ‘Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda’, building momentum for the effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular goal 5: ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; and ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.’

From 14 to 17 August 2018, the Faculty of Law is hosting its annual Law Faculty Festival for its law students themed ‘Year of the Womxn’.  Students and staff are looking forward to the annual festivities, socialising and showcasing the talents of students and staff. But we also realise and acknowledge the sobering undertone of the Festival’s theme - lest we forget – that despite the progress that have been made, women’s rights are still suppressed around the globe.[1] 

According to the United Nations on Human Rights, ‘gender equality is essential for the achievement of human rights for all. Yet discriminatory laws against women persist in every corner of the globe and new discriminatory laws are enacted. In all legal traditions many laws continue to institutionalise second class status for women and girls with regard to nationality and citizenship, health, education, marital rights, employment rights, parental rights, inheritance and property rights. These forms of discrimination against women are incompatible with women’s empowerment.’ 

Shockingly, in some countries rapists can still claim parental rights.  On 5 June 2018, Saudia Arabia issued its first driving licences to women.  On 4 August 2018 The Lily News[2] reported that a medical school in Japan was systematically deflating women’s grades, blocking female applicants - occurring in a country which has been battling with a shortage of doctors to support its aging population.  The article states that “According to an unnamed source who spoke to the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, the school thought female students would eventually leave the medical profession to give birth and raise their children. ‘There was a silent understanding [to accept more male students] as one way to resolve the doctor shortage,’ the source said, adding that the policy was a “necessary evil.”’  Evil indeed.  The banality of evil against women still continues in our homes, our neighbours’ homes, our schools, our universities, our workplaces.

Yesteryear – Constance Mary Hall

It is the summer of 1921 in Pretoria, South Africa.  A keen and eager young female, aged 20 (referred to as a spinster in the media!), Constance Mary Hall, is lodging her application on Friday, 7 January, for the registration of her articles of clerkship under principal Frederic John Lunnon from the firm Lunnon and Tindall (now MacRoberts Inc attorneys). 

Connie was born in London in 1901 and arrived in South Africa with her parents in 1903.  After matriculating as Head Girl at St Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls at the tender age of 16 and not knowing quite what she wanted to do next, she taught at the school for two years.  Having decided to pursue a career in law, Connie attended the Transvaal University College, as the University of Pretoria was then known, whilst serving articles of clerkship. In her extra-mural classes at TUC, Connie was the only woman in a class of 200 men.  In 1921 she passed her Law Certificate Examination.

Ms Hall’s application for articles of clerkship was consequently registered on 24 January 1921 by the Supreme Court of South Africa Transvaal Provincial Division.  However, Connie’s happiness was short-lived, as her registration was cancelled on 16 February by the Secretary of the then Incorporated Law Society of the Transvaal.  In a short note from the Secretary on Connie’s cancelled registration of articles form, it is clear that ‘[T]hese articles were rendered for registration on 7 January 1921 and registration refused on the 16th April – on the grounds that the clerk is a woman’. 

According to Mrs Barbara Hoole, daughter of Connie Hall, the remarks on the bottom right hand corner of the document dated 19th February 1921 made Connie even more determined to get admitted, with the backing of Connie’s father, her firm and various lawyers pleading her case.  ‘My mother was an extremely motivated and determined lady. Inter alia she was the Vice-Chairperson of the Extra Mural Students’ Representative Council TUC in 1921.’

On Monday, 24 September 1923, Mr Justice de Waal decided that Connie could not be admitted as a solicitor, ‘on account of the non-registration of her articles, in spite of the Act passed that year removing the disqualification of women.’  The Act could not apply retrospectively.  Mr Justice de Waal ruled that ‘Ms Hall will therefore have to serve another three years’ articles.’ 

On 10 November 1926, Constance Mary Hall became the first woman to be admitted as an attorney in South Africa. 

The rise in the number of women practicing as attorneys, at the bar and as academics has been gradual. From 1990 [3] there has been a marked increase in the number of women appearing in all three arms of the legal profession. 

In 1927 Connie married John (Jack) Brunton Pollock, a Chartered Accountant from Scotland and they were blessed with two daughters and a son. She used her hard-won qualifications to good use throughout her life being an energetic, hardworking and committed member of various organisations, such as the League of Women Voters, the Women's Voluntary Services, especially with regard to the Legal Disabilities of Women, the Penal Reform League, 50 years’ service on the Governing Body of St. Mary's DSG, etc and a locum for a law practice in Pilgrims Rest in 1939.

She died aged 92, one month after the birth of her first great grandchild.

94 years later – Gundo Nevhutanda

In the summer of December 2017 in Pretoria, a young and energetic young woman has just been admitted as attorney, conveyancer and notary.  Gundo Nevhutanda, the eldest of four children, originally form Vondwe village outside Thohoyandou in the Limpopo Province, is smiling from ear to ear when she talks about her accomplishments as one of the youngest ever attorneys, notaries and conveyancers[4] in South Africa.  The disbelief on her face is priceless when she realises the coincidence of Connie Hall and her serving articles of clerkship at the same firm 95 years apart -  although worlds apart.   

During Gundo’s years at the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria she was a class representative and a presenter for TuksFM Radio.  She is a trained public speaker with a passion for radio and television presenting. Gundo recently joined the firm Webber Wentzel as an associate in Real Estate.

Gundo believes that studying LLB at UP Law was her career’s breakthrough.

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The women mentioned in this article are hailed for their remarkable achievements in the organised legal profession in South Africa, more than nine decades apart.[5] We salute you, Constance Mary Pollock!  We salute you, Gundo Nevhutanda! We salute all women! #RIPKhensani.

 

                                                Constance Mary Hall                                  Gundo Nevhutanda


[1] https://www.thelily.com/8-restrictions-on-womens-rights-around-the-world/

[2] https://www.thelily.com/a-medical-school-in-japan-didnt-want-too-many-women-so-it-lowered-their-grades/

[3] According to Women Marching into the 21st Century: Wathint' Abafazi, Wathint' Imbokodo’, released by the South African Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology on 9 August 2000

[4] Letter from the Law Society of the Northern Provinces

[5] Having met the daughter of the late Constance Mary Pollock (nee Hall), Mrs Barbara Hoole, it became evident to the writer that Mrs Pollock paved the (female) route for admission to the legal profession for women practitioners in South Africa. We thank Mrs Hoole for her contributions and patience in this regard. Editor.


 

 

- Author Elzet Hurter

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