Two years after its initial release, the documentary film Courting Justice continues to inspire audiences around the world with its story of South African women who fought against all odds to win judgeships in the country’s highest courts.
The film looks at seven women — but most especially the black women — who never gave up hope during the terrible years of apartheid and now make up some 18 percent of South Africa’s judiciary. Among the black African women justices highlighted in the film are Yvonne Mokgoro, Bess Nkabinde, Mandisa Maya and Pat Goliath. Most came from humble beginnings and had to overcome severe prejudice because of their gender as well as their race.
The documentary, by American filmmaker Ruth B. Cowan, has been shown worldwide and has won numerous accolades, including the Audience Award of the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa. It has been shown to South Africa’s Parliament and to South African children in at least 60 schools, and has had three television airings by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Teachers in New York City have urged that the film be shown in classrooms in all the districts in that school system, Cowan said. “The purpose is not to talk about South Africa,” Cowan explained, “but to show them [the students] what they can do in their lives.”
Audiences in Washington had an opportunity to view the documentary and meet Cowan, thanks to a special event hosted April 9 by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Introducing the film was Ambassador Melanne Verveer, U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. The stories of these women judges, Verveer said, make all who hear them realize “how one brings the human rights provisions of the [South African post-apartheid] constitution — and everything the constitution represents — to reality, and that is very powerful.” This film’s story, she said, “is about the great promise of human rights and judicial reform. And that can only take root and sprout and be nurtured where there are committed people in a democracy.”
Cowan said she was awed by the strength of the women judges she got to know. “Those women were so strong,” she said. She said some had trained and worked as magistrates during apartheid, while a few others made huge sacrifices to study law in the United States. Many black South Africans determined to advance their education were able to do so via a distance learning course offered by UNISA (University of South Africa), she said.
Cowan acknowledged that the path for women in South Africa, as in many other countries, is not easy. . “There are many women who go to law school and graduate; they work in law firms for a while. But there is a huge dropout rate from the profession — there is only so much people [women] are willing to take,” Cowan said. On-the-job discrimination — both subtle and blatant — is common, she said; this is mentioned in the film by the women judges themselves.
Cowan has had her own battles with sexism. In the 1970s, she was an assistant professor of political science at one of the community colleges of the City University of New York. Although she was the only tenured woman in the department, she was denied promotion even as her male peers were advanced. She, along with other women in similar situations, filed a grievance against the college and won. She called the experience “transformative.” With a new appreciation for women’s rights, Cowan went on to complete a distinguished 30-year academic career. In 1990, she became the founding president of the board of directors of Pro Mujer, an international women’s development and microfinance organization that provides training and small startup loans to poor but aspiring women entrepreneurs.
Cowan also serves on the board for the Global Partnership for Afghanistan (GPFA), a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that provides guidance to rural Afghan men and women on how to develop sustainable farm enterprises. Her experience with Pro Mujer and GPFA convinced her of the overriding importance of good governance. South Africa’s new post-apartheid constitution caught her attention, as did the women who were beginning to win appointments to the high courts in that country. After traveling to South Africa to study the courts, as well as the work of the South African Women’s Legal Centre, Cowan was inspired to tell the story of South Africa’s female judges in a documentary.
Courting Justice is available through Women Make Movies, a nonprofit media arts organization that facilitates media produced by and about women.
Film clips of the documentary can be seen on YouTube.