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Justice Yvonne Mokgoro

in conversation with Prof. Daniel Plaatjies

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1950 Born in Galeshewe near Kimberley in the Northern Cape

1970 Matriculated at the local St Boniface High School

1982 Bachelor of Law (B.luris) degree at the University of Bophuthatswana, now North West University

1984 Bachelor of Law (LLB) University of Bophuthatswana,

1984 Appointed lecturer in law in the Department of Jurisprudence, University of Bophuthatswana

1987 Master of Laws (LLM) University of Bophuthatswana

1989-1990 Awarded Educational Opportunities Council scholarship to study in the USA

1990 Awarded a second LLM degree from the University of Pennsylvania, USA

1990 Awarded Women’s Law and Public Law Fellowship, by Georgetown University Law Centre, Washington DC

1991-1993 Associate Professor at the University of the Western Cape

1994-2004 Advisory Committee of the SA - Canadian Linkage Project, from its inception until it ceased operations

1994-2009 Judge of the Constitutional Court

1995-2005 President of Africa Legal Aid (AFLA)

1995-2011 Chair of South African Law (Reform) Commission

2002-2009 Chair of Venda University Council

2008 James Wilson Award by the University of Pennsylvania Law School

2009 Special Ambassador for the University of Venda

2011-2013 Judge in the Office of the Chief Justice (OCJ)

2012 Chair of Independent Panel of Experts to investigate the circumstance of the incident in (stampede) that occurred at the University of Johannesburg SA

2013 Chair a Tribunal which will investigate the ethical conduct of the President of the Lesotho Court of Appeal.

2013-2018 Official Advocate for Social Cohesion in South Africa.


It was the 1970s, at the height of political and human rights oppression in South Africa. A young Yvonne was in a police cell, waiting for a man her family had managed to find to help secure her release. She had landed herself in police detention a day prior when she stood up to police officers who were raiding young innocent men off the streets. This was following a loitering law that came into place in the townships. The man soon arrived, and he was able to get her out. His name was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, an acclaimed political dissident and teacher who founded the Pan Africanist Congress. On the way back home, he had a talk with her about women in legal practice. That conversation changed the trajectory of her life for good.


Yvonne was born in a Northern Cape township called Galeshewe in 1950. She completed high school in 1970, after which she enrolled to become a teacher at the University of Bophuthatswana (now North-West University).


Following the eye-opening encounter with Robert Sobukwe, she went back to the university. She changed her registration to a law degree resulting in graduating in 1987 with a B. Juris LLB and LLM degrees. Yvonne soon got into practice and found herself to be an unconventional lawyer. A lawyer with a heart, as she describes it. She found that rather than aiming to get the maximum number of convictions, she was somewhat driven by the need to be on the side of truth, even if it meant speaking up for the very same people she was told to be persecuting.


She has had to break generational barriers of gender, race, and class. She has been an anomaly in a stream of conventionalities, and she has excelled. In 1984, she was appointed lecturer in law in the Department of Jurisprudence, University of Bophuthatswana, rising to the ranks of Associate Professor. She has lectured in South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Netherlands. In 1992 she served as Associate Professor at the University of the Western Cape, and in 1993 she went to the Centre for Constitutional Analysis at the Human Science Research Council to serve as Specialist Researcher (Human Rights).


In the wake of a new democratic South Africa in 1994, she was appointed by Nelson Mandela to the bench of the Constitutional Court, where she served for 15 years.

Yvonne leader

Always do the right thing

Key Quality of a Servant Leader

Justice Yvonne Mokgoro

South African

Public Servant



Judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa


Awards for her roles as Public Servant

1995 Awarded the Human Rights Award by the Black Lawyers Association

1995-1996 Oude Molen Reserve Order of Merit

2001 Legal Profession’s Woman Achiever Award by the Centre for Human Rights, and the University of Pretoria

2003 University of the North School of Law Excellence Award

2003 The Kate Stoneman Democracy Award (Albany Law School, New York, U.S.A)

2006 Selected as an icon of the history of Women Lawyers in South Africa

2006 The Tshwane Outstanding Service Award (TOSA)

2008 James Wilson Award by the University of Pennsylvania Law School (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Yvonne interview
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Things You May Not Know About Yvonne

These are drawn from the full interview, which for Daniel was from "OneComradeToAnother'. Watch the full interview, here.

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since 1950s


Lessons from my father

"... My father always told me that when you interact with people, at any level, be yourself. Don’t pretend that you are someone that you are not, just be yourself. Project your personality. You probably have something that will stand you in good stead in your character, and you probably have something that other people don’t have that they can learn from you. That is something I have learned… My dad told me- all of us, as we were growing up: always do the right thing. You know, just do the right thing. Wherever you find yourself, whether it is a difficult situation, an easy situation, a conflict situation, be on the right side of things, do the right thing. And doing the right thing means doing it right, but doing it well, especially when it comes to tasks, do it well. My father used to say it doesn’t matter where you operate, whether you are a priest, or you are a teacher, you are a lawyer, you are a leader in government, or even if your duty, your job is to sweep the streets, do it so well that when you turn around and you look at your work, you feel good about it… Don’t worry about the money, He used to say, if you want to do work because of the money, you will do any type of work, you might even become a thief because there is a lot of money to steal. Do your work, do it well, do it right- you will get recognition for it..."



Robert Sobukwe and the conversation that changed the course of her life

“... My family got Robert Sobukwe, who was one of the two lawyers at the time who was in Kimberley, to represent me in that case. Because I spent the weekend in prison, in police station cells, and then on Monday we appeared… Robert Sobukwe got me off the hook because the charge was obstructing the ends of justice. And our argument was that it was a trumped-up charge, there was no justice that I was obstructing. So we were walking because Robert Sobukwe didn't have a car, I didn’t know that he didn’t have a car, we all took taxis at the time. He was a lawyer, but he also took the taxi. As we were walking to the taxi rank we had this conversation… I lamented the idea that there are not many lawyers around, I don't know where the men in this place are. All the people who were at university at Fort Hare studying, there were not enough who were studying law... And then he said, “No, no, no, what do you mean where are the men? Where are the women? Why don’t you ask where the women are?” And said: “Oh, Prof, law is such a male-dominated profession. Where is the place for women?” And he said: “You know what? There’s no law against women studying law. So women can also become lawyers. There’s a tendency, there’s a culture of men studying law, and it looks like they are keeping out women, but it doesn't mean women can’t do it. Let’s try with you, let’s start with you.” And indeed, when I went back to school, to Turfloop, I changed my registration and I registered for law. So the long and short of it is that is how I landed here, and I never looked back…”


The mysterious nomination

“... I understand that I had been nominated by five people and organisations. There was one person who had nominated me, I didn’t want to ask who it was... And then four other organisations. I know that the Black Sash was one of those that nominated me, otherwise I don't know who the other three were. And each time when I was asked if I would agree to a nomination when the JSC’s admin would ask me, I would say, No, no, no… This is my time to do exactly what I have seen, when I was studying in the United States, to do what the American academics would do. Whenever there was a new issue, they would research it… A new social issue, political issue, governance issue … They would research it, and the lawyers would take a legal perspective and approach the issues from a legal point of view and write books about it, write articles about it. And that’s exactly what I wanted to do with this new constitutional democracy. I thought that I could now contribute immensely to creating and growing and nurturing our constitutional democracy… I never really wanted to be in the judiciary, I always wanted to be a good lawyer but then at the time when a new dispensation came into place I was an academic. And I regarded myself as an academic in a good space, and wanted to explore that space…”



More women needed

“... One day, when I had already been a judge, I got the shock of my life when I heard the Dean at the University of Bophuthatswana tell the audience at a conference where I was speaking, that up to that point I was the only black woman that carried the title of Professor in the field of law… I was disappointed. I was really disappointed. I had thought that by then when I was at the court and I had left academia for a long time, things would have changed. But I was consoled when one day Najma from the University of the Western Cape, called me and told me that she had been appointed associate professor, and I said: “Najma it’s not yet professor, but I know you will work toward it.” I felt a huge sense of duty, a sense of responsibility. I remember much was made of our appointment as women at the Constitutional Court… Judge (Kate) O'Regan and myself, and there was quite some media frenzy around it, and we were lined up for a number of interviews from the press… I remember the first question I was asked by a media interviewer was, “How do you feel?” And I said: “You know what? To be honest, I have mixed feelings. First, let me say it is about time that we have women on the bench. That is the first feeling, it is long overdue. But then secondly I feel a huge responsibility has been placed on my shoulders to make this environment even more conducive for women because I am of the view that we need the services, we need the skills, we need the aptitude, we need the integrity of men and women to develop judicial jurisprudence that will enhance justice in this country…”



A strong circle of women

"... When I was growing up you hardly had women lawyers generally, let alone black women lawyers. The lawyers that we knew were always male and mostly white. In the place where I grew up in Galeshewe, Kimberley, at the time we only had two in the township, two black lawyers, no women. And even nationally I was not aware of women lawyers. I grew up and went to school in a Catholic context… My teachers were Dominican nuns, and those were the people who one saw as models of what you want to do one day… So I always thought I wanted to be a teacher… I always had the idea that I would work with people. I knew that because I loved working with people. Although I grew up as a very shy girl... I always knew that I would want to work with people. That was the influence that came from being daily within an environment where you had women around you. Right from the principal to the person who assists the principal, the teachers, everybody, they were all women... I was a woman, I was a black woman, I came from a relatively indigent background, from the dusty streets of Galeshewe Township, … I was the first generation of university-educated in my whole family tree, first generation of high school graduates in my family tree… I come from- a working-class, nuclear family, where my mom and dad did not proceed beyond what is now termed as grade 4…"



Her first love, teaching

"... When I went to university for the first time I registered for a Bachelor of Arts degree, with the view to becoming a teacher… We went to school during very turbulent times, more like today with this Fees Must Fall movement, where campuses were bastions of the Black Consciousness Movement. And people generally thought we were restless… We took up issues when they emerged. There was a time when there were constant protests, striking over issues, and the strategy at the time was to close the universities and send us home. Unlike now with this movement where the aim of the establishment is to keep the universities open, I always see that as an irony. The idea was to manage the protests. Send us home, re-admit students, and keep out the so-called ring leaders… I became an academic and I rose in the ranks of academia until I became an associate professor. And then the political situation in the 1990s, the writing was on the wall that we would have democratic dispensation replacing the apartheid regime, the homelands of course became resistant. The homelands system at the time, Bophuthatswana, became ruthlessly resistant and those of us who served in universities… There were threats all the time... We moved to Cape Town, my former husband and I, to serve at UWC. Because UWC at the time was seen as the intellectual home of the left, and they were open to different activism, activist ideas, revolutionary ideas, and we found a home there. And that is how, actually, I landed at UWC. I only spent two years at UWC, because my then-husband was recruited to the South African Development Bank, and I had to go with him to Pretoria. And I went to the Human Sciences Research Council, held a part-time job, a teaching stint, at the University of Pretoria at the Human Rights Centre. And in 1994 I came to the Constitutional Court when I was nominated to serve at the Constitutional Court..."



The confidence that comes with accomplishment

“... My career background had, I think, made me quite a confident person. It made me quite believable. I was a teacher, I was an associate professor at a university, I had gone, traveled the world, studied abroad, did well, and I think, whether we like it or not, that gives you so much confidence. I was already at a level where when I speak people listen - teaching postgraduate students they listen, they believe you because they do well in their studies- and nobody dared, at that stage, to tell me that I don’t have a contribution to make. You're given the opportunity to make the contribution, you make it. Outside of that space, there is pressure. People would always tell me how much I represent women, black women, people who come from what was regarded as insignificant, indigent backgrounds, and I always saw myself as this person who had to pave the way for other people- but you had to do it right. And I used every space I had at the constitutional court because the bench was still broadly speaking, male. It became blacker and blacker but when I came there it was still white male-dominated…”


Please note this is a word-for-word transcript from Daniel and Yvonne's conversation. 



The bold objection that landed her in a police cell

"... So it was during such a time when I had to go home, that I had an altercation with the police one Friday afternoon… There was the police at the time, in response to a law, a loitering law that we had in the townships, where people were kept off the streets as much as possible. Every Friday they would drive around in their police vans and pick up people who they thought were loitering. So there was such a case. They picked up some young man who was just standing at the corner of the street, and I was passing by with a friend of mine. Just instinctively, I think it came from the inner me, I objected and I told them they have no right to arrest this young man who has done absolutely nothing. Within no time I found myself with this young man in the police van, and they drove around with us until about 10 o'clock that night, kept on filling the police van with people they had picked up. And then at some stage, they took us to the police station and they beat up those people, they beat up all those men. They just picked up men, they beat them up, and I was asked to stand in a corner and watch. I guess that was my punishment..."


When the prosecutor found herself defending the accused

"... I always ensured that justice was done, even for the accused person... An incident happened, in a case where the accused didn't have legal representation, the interpreter interpreted his testimony in a way that didn’t quite accurately reflect what this man was saying. And it was almost as if he was doing it deliberately… He would listen to the Setswana evidence and then convey it to the magistrate in English. And this poor man was not English speaking. And I picked it up and I raised it, I actually raised an objection. I said: “ No, no, no, no, that is not what the accused said.” … And I think after about the third time the magistrate got annoyed and adjourned the court and called me to his chambers, and admonished me. He said: “You know what, we don't have time for this. There are still many accused people who are coming, and these people don't deserve for you to become their unofficial lawyer. Are you defending the accused or are you prosecuting him?” I said: “I’m prosecuting him. I’m certainly prosecuting him.” “Then you must find another way of prosecuting him.” I went back to court. The interpreter didn't repeat what he did, fortunately. And then I realised that is not the place for me to be..."




The call

“...I remember the day that I had been appointed. I was giving a talk at a constitutional law seminar… It was organised by one of the NGO’s. I think before or about 12 o’clock was when I heard that I had been appointed. The judges' people came, announced it at the seminar, and congratulated me, I thought, woah... It was the Chief Justice, Arthur Chaskalson who called me, and gave me the formal news, gave me the news at a formal level. But by the time he called me, I already knew. He confirmed it and he welcomed me to the court…I think there must be something wrong with me, maybe, because, I must admit, I wasn't excited. I was like what is going on, it’s so surreal and I took it in my stride. I took it as one of those things that I have to do because I have to do them. I’ve been called upon to do something. When I was a professor at the university I was one of the few women professors at that university. At the law school, I was the only woman with the title ‘Professor’. I was the only woman in the law board, I was the only woman in a number of committees. And there was this pressure to open, to change that and to open it, and by doing so I had to use a tool of hard work. Because if I didn’t use the tool of hard work to open up, I might find myself in that position for a long time to come…”


The rough start

“... A funny thing that happened to me, which was not so funny but which we laughed about later… The weekend before the first meeting, we had to meet on Monday… I had moved with my family from Mafikeng and we rented a flat in Oaklands, my son had come with me- I was new to Jo’burg – so we explored the place. My son, came with me I think it was raining on that day, my son drove with me into town… We were driving around to familiarize ourselves with where I had to drive… My son looked into the rear view mirror and said, “Mami, there are police, who are stopping us.” There were red lights… They were police from the Brixton station. I said, “Tati, just stop. Don't drive any further just go, stop around the side of the road” It was on the highway, we were going to the ramp of an exit, so shortly before we did that, my son stopped on the margin of the road. And they came. We were driving a Camry vehicle… It was clean and it was washed. My son was the driver. So two of them surrounded the car And they asked, “Whose car is this?”, and then my son answered, “It’s my mom’s car,” and he pointed to me. So they asked us to get out of the car, so we got out. And they pointed at us with guns, “Go to the back of the car. Put your hands on the boot... I started to get angry and I asked, “What is this all about?”, and they said, “This car has been reported stolen.” They were on the phone to the Brixton police station... So they wanted us to follow them to Brixton. We got there… Fortunately, they didn’t search us, they just said we must put our hands there and they looked in the car… They said we must follow them, so we followed them. And we waited there, and they were on their computers… My son wanted to say something, and I said, “Don’t say a word. Just keep quiet; I know where this could lead to… So at some stage I got a bit impatient, so I asked them, “So what is going on? Because this car has not been stolen. This is my car, and I bought it.” They let us stay there for about 30, 35 minutes, before coming to us and saying; “okay you can go”. So when I got back to the constitutional court, I told them the story. But the reason why I had to tell them the story was because something else happened at the constitutional court earlier. With all this renovation going on, I had left my bag in my office to go across the corridor and when I came back and wanted to go to lunch, my bag was gone. So they said, “We hope that you are not going to be a biased judge, every time when you have to make judgments you think about how you were victimized, by crime, by the police, and then you start having an attitude towards the police” … But I said, “No, don’t worry, I know when to do the right thing…. So that was something that we laughed about… It just shows that when you go around you don’t carry the; “I’ve been appointed a judge, leave me alone.” No, be yourself. We’re all people and it is respect that reigns in a relationship between people, not status. I could have easily said- “Hey, do you know who I am?” But no, you don’t do that, you know, let them do their job. I found myself in those situations a lot of times but no, I am just Yvonne Makgoro, finished and klaar…”


Full Interview 

Yvonne Full Interview
Yvonne lesson

Servant Leaders must always do the right thing

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"... You do it constitutionally; you comply with the Constitution consistently. You will tell me that that’s probably rules made in the ideal world, but this constitution gives us the opportunity to do the right thing. {Daniel: You have…} And indeed, if decisions are not taken by the legislature and the executive and these issues are in the public space all that the court is doing – of course, they don’t have particular talents that other public officials don’t have- all that they are doing is implementing the Constitution, and do it as right as the legislature of the executive should have done it...."

Daniel in conversation with

Justice Yvonne Mokgoro






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