Leonora van den Heever 1998


Leonora van den Heever, the first woman judge in South Africa's history, has become re­nowned for her profound knowledge of the law, the forthright, direct and clear use of language in her judgments, and for her role as a formidable propo­nent of the rights of women and children. Collea­gues describe her as a person of integrity with an exceptional capacity for hard work and an extremely charming personality. Her reported judgments re­veal the depth of her wit and common sense, her in­dependent discernment and her respect for the law, as well as the exceptionally high standards she ex­pected both of herself and of others whose actions were subjected to her unforgiving scrutiny.

Judge Van den Heever was particularly committed to ensuring compliance with that well-known maxim of the law: justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done. This is apparent from many of her judgments. Once, for example, she granted an interdict against the police, prohibiting them from unlawfully detaining, assaulting or harassing the applicants. These were two technikon students arrested on the grounds of inciting others to throw stones at the police while they were dispersing an illegal gathering. In a number of re­view cases she also seriously reprimanded magi­strates about irregularities occurring during trials before them. An example was a case in which a magistrate forced an accused into the witness-box against his will, and then personally cross-examined him to the extent that the accused was driven to say things he never intended.

After the introduction of the new Divorce Act in 1979 Leonora van den Heever properly quashed the perception that it was now very easy to obtain a divorce. She meticulously assessed the state of the marriage in question and would never grant a divorce simply because the plaintiff was adamant about the marriage being at an end. If, for example, the marriage had never been very happy from the start and this state had simply continued, a divorce was not granted. The Divorce Act required a definite deterioration in the relationship before a divorce could be granted.

Leonora van den Heever was born on 9 July 1926 in the then South-West Africa, as the second child and only daughter of the late Judge of Appeal and poet, Francois Petrus ("Toon") van den Heever, and Margaretha ("Max") van den Heever, nee Rauten­bach. It was only three years before her birth that legislation was adopted in South Africa admitting women to the Bar.

eonora grew up in a home where the law enjoyed first priority. At the time of her birth her father had just been appointed legal adviser to the Prime Minister, General Hertzog. In 1933 the family moved back to Windhoek upon Toon's appointment as a judge there. In 1938 he became a judge in Bloemfontein where Leonora matriculated in 1942 at the Oranje High School with various distinctions. Even before she matriculated, her father attempted to persuade her to take a legal degree but she believed that "his shadow was already too long" and that she did not want to be known as "Toon's daughter" -an early example of the independent thinking for which she later became known.

In the ensuing years she obtained a BA degree cum laude at the University of Pretoria with English and Latin as majors, her idea being to become a journalist or take up some similar occupation. In 194 7 she obtained an MA in English, again cum laude. Her love of English literature had surely arisen even at the age of seven when she particularly enjoyed the "adventure" in the collected works of Shakespeare. She returned to Bloem­fontein without any definite plans for the future, just with "her suitcases, an enormous collection of books and a Dachshund puppy", (Van Heerden, H. 1969. South African Law Journal, p 264). In 1948 she taught for a term at Clocolan and then lectured at the Teachers' College in Bloemfontein, experiences which convinced her that she was not destined for the education profession.

She returned to Bloemfontein in July 1948 at the very time when her father's registrar was called away unexpectedly and he, with great foresight, invited her to do him an enormous favour by assisting him until such time as he could obtain the services of another registrar. That was the start of her pioneering career in the legal profession. After only two weeks she was employed by Judge CP Brink of the Free State Bench, when her father was made an acting judge of appeal.

Judge Brink served in the circuit court which imme­diately introduced her to further aspects of law -at a time when she decided that after all her future lay in the legal profession. In 1951 she obtained her LLB degree at the University of the Orange Free State, after having studied extramurally and again having worked for her father who was serving in the Appeal Court at the time. In 1952 Leonora van den Heever was admitted to the Orange Free State Bar, as only the second woman, following Advocate Gladys Steyn who did not practise long before entering politics.

For seven years Advocate Van den Heever practised in Bloemfontein • a period during which her well­recognised knowledge of and aptitude for the law meant that she appeared more often in the Appellate Division than in undefended divorce cases. In 1958 she married Christo Neethling who shortly thereafter was transferred to Welkom. By this time she was so strongly committed to the law that she was determined to continue practising as an advocate. Since no chambers were available in Welkom, she practised from her home, having obtained special permission from the Free State Bar Council. Her love for and devotion to the legal profession saw her through the next five years of practising as an advocate, while bringing three daughters into the world. In 1964 the family moved back to Bloemfontein.

Leonora van den Heever raised eyebrows in 1968 when she became the first woman in South Africa to apply for silk (the senior status known formerly as "Queen's Counsel"). A much larger stir was caused in 1969 when she was appointed to the Free State Bench in an acting capacity for about six weeks. In the winter of that year she became the first woman to be appointed a judge in South Africa, her posting being to Kimberley. At the end of 1979 she accepted a transfer to the Cape Division of the Supreme Court in Cape Town.

During the course of the next decade Judge Van den Heever acted on a number of occasions on the appeal bench of Bophuthatswana. She also acted as commissioner and member of the Commission of Inquiry into alleged irregularities in the Department of Education and Training. In 1991 she was ap­pointed judge of appeal in the Appeal Court in Bloemfontein, where she remained until her retirement from full-time service in July 1996. Later that year she also acted for a few months in the Cape Provincial Division of the Supreme Court. Last year she was appointed an appeal court judge in Lesotho.

Up to her retirement in 1996 Judge Van den Heever was Chairperson of the Board of the South African Library; she was also one of the trustees of the Cape Town Ballet Benevolent Fund; and one of the members of the Board of the William Humphreys Art Gallery for the last few years of her Kimberley stay.

In 1987 she was honoured as the Western Cape Woman of the Year by the Women's Bureau; in 1996 she was awarded a Chancellor's Medal by the University of Pretoria, and at the end of last year she was awarded an honorary doctorate in Law by the University of Stellenbosch.

The University of Port Elizabeth wishes to honour Judge Leonora van den Heever with an honorary doctorate not only in recognition of her pioneering role when the legal profession was overwhelmingly male-dominated, but particularly for her humanity and inestimable contribution to that profession: her independent judgment and respect for the law, her ability to deliver clear and straightforward pro­nouncements, and her endeavours to ensure the triumph of justice.