From township rat hell to top job as a judge

11 October 2015 - 02:00 By AARTI J NARSEE

The JSC interviews some deserving would-be judges, and some who were less so. When 43-year-old Lebogang Modiba finished telling her story, the Judicial Service Commission panel applauded her.story_article_left1And Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke said: "My parting shot is that if you do what you promise, I will keep my gown [for you] and you will just have to tailor it to make it smaller, and you can tell them that 'an old man I knew wore this gown and I have inherited it'. It will be green in colour."Modiba had told the commission that the icy nights and marauding rats of Alexandra township had galvanised her into escaping a life of appalling poverty.As a child, Modiba spent most of her time reading in the nearby library. Unlike her cold, dark home, it had electricity. But the main reason she went there was to escape the rats that invaded her small home through holes in the wall.The JSC panel recommended her for the position of judge in the Gauteng division of the high court.The gender-rights lawyer, who practises at her law firm Modiba and Associates, gave the JSC an emotional account of her childhood in Alexandra."My experience of poverty is that it is oppressive, keeps people in bondage," she said."It is normally not easy for people to overcome poverty and I say so because in my own family, people who have been exposed to the same upbringing that I have been exposed to, have not been able to overcome it to this day."Her mother, who had been a teacher, died when Modiba was three years old, leaving her with her father, who was a clerk."It hit me badly, I battled with that throughout my life. Growing up I compared myself to peers who still had their mothers and imagined how life would have been if she was around. My father didn't cope with the loss. His life came to a standstill."Her childhood home had few comforts.block_quotes_start Thirty years from now I will be 73. If I am not retired, I will be at the Constitutional Court block_quotes_end"To escape that I would spend time in the library, where it was warmer, to study," she said."At my house, there were often holes and rats would be coming in. I have a terrible phobia of rats to this day. I would always prefer to be 'out there', not in the streets but in the library studying. That's what helped me escape poverty."Modiba obtained a BProc law degree at the University of the Witwatersrand and started work immediately because her father had lost his job. Her first job was at the newly opened Alexandra law clinic.She worked in various jobs in the public sector, including at the Tshwaranang Legal Research and Advocacy Centre for Women and the Women's Legal Centre. She was awarded a fellowship to study at Harvard University for a year.Modiba said she had worked in the public sector because she was "pursuing destiny".She is one of the few women to have put themselves forward to be on the bench. The judiciary has been struggling with gender transformation. Fewer than 35% of judges are female.story_article_right2The mother of three children told the commission that were it not for the support structures in place around her, she would not be where she was today.Her husband, also a lawyer, was extremely supportive, she said.The commission applauded her when she said: "I believe I look younger than I am. Thirty years from now I will be 73. If I am not retired, I will be at the Constitutional Court."This was when Moseneke offered to leave his gown to Modiba. She replied: "I will hold you to that."Other candidates recommended for appointment to the Gauteng bench were Labour Court Judge Annali Basson; the former director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Raylene Keightley; specialist tax attorney Nelisa Mali; magistrate Thifhelimbilu Mudau and Johannesburg senior counsel Willem van der Linde.The appointments must be ratified by President Jacob

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