Justice Yvonne

Justice Yvonne Mokgoro, who was part of the inaugural South African Constitutional Court bench, passed away on 9 May 2024. As the first black women to serve at the highest judicial level in the country (1994-2009), she was a trail blazer. As a Judge and person, she was deeply appreciated for her acute intellect, consistent fair mindedness, poised professionalism, rigour and kindness.

Together with so many, the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria, mourns her passing. But we also celebrate her life. The Centre is privileged that Justice Mokgoro for many years served as a member of its Advisory Board. In 2008, as her term on the Court drew to a close, the Faculty of Law awarded an honorary doctorate to her. This award recognised her excellent contributions to the jurisprudence of the Court, but also marked the collaborative relationship between her and the Faculty.

As a Constitutional Court Judge, her distinct voice emerged from the very first case decided by the Court (State v Makwanyane), in which the death penalty was declared unconstitutional. In her judgment, Justice Mokgoro introduced Ubuntu as ‘one shared value and ideal that runs like a golden thread across cultural lines’ in South Africa. She describes it as ‘humanity, person-hood and morality, group solidarity, compassion, respect, human dignity, conformity to basic norms and collective unity’, based on the saying umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a human being is a person through other people). Not only was she one of three women on the Court (the others being Justices Kate O'Regan and Bessie Nkabinde), she was also one of three ‘academics’ without significant experience in legal practice or as judges on the Court (the others being Justices Kate O'Regan and Albie Sachs).

Justice Mokgoro has a long-standing relationship with the Centre for Human Rights. In 2001, the Centre honoured her for her many achievements as a woman within the legal profession with the award of the Woman of the Year in Law award. In 2006, she served as a judge in the final round of the 15th African Human Rights Moot Court Competition which was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Her research focused on sociological jurisprudence, particularly human rights and customary law, including the social impact it has on women and children. Throughout her legal career, Justice Mokgoro has written extensively, presented numerous papers, and participated in a myriad of national and international seminars and workshops in South Africa and abroad.

She also left her mark at the international level. In 2021 she was appointed to the United nations Independent expert mechanism to advance racial justice and equality in law enforcement, which the UN Human Rights Council established in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in the United States. This appointment recognised her work on and commitment to combat systemic racism.

The Centre extends its warm condolences to all Justice Mokgoro’s family and friends.


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