Landmark case: In South Africa, five sisters said NO! to the exclusion of women … and won!

Constitutional Court

This is the story of Trudene Forword, Annelie Jordaan, Elna Slabber, Kalene Roux and Surina Serfontein, five women who refused to be denied their birthright, and In so doing affirmed, once again, that justice means justice for everyone. The story begins in 1902, in Oudtshoorn, in the Klein Karoo, in the Western Cape. Oudtshoorn is known for ostrich farms. Maybe now it will also be known as yet another cradle of democracy and justice for all. On November 28, 1902, Karel Johannes Cornelius de Jager and his wife, Catherine Dorothea de Jager formally signed their will, leaving some of their farms to their children, with one stipulation. The farms would pass from their children only to male generations until the third generation. But what if, at some point, the only direct descendants are women? Last month, South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled on that question. 

In 1957, brothers Kalvyn, Cornelius and John de Jager inherited the property. John de Jager never had sons, and so when he died, his property was split between his two remaining brothers, Kalvyn and Cornelius. When Cornelius died, his sons – Albertus, Frederick, and Arnoldus – inherited his half share in the farms. In 2015, Kalvyn de Jager died. He had no sons, and he had five daughters: Trudene Forword, Annelie Jordaan, Elna Slabber, Kalene Roux and Surina Serfontein. Their male cousins claimed the property, noting that while the situation may smack of “unfair discrimination”, the law was the law, and a will was a will. The sisters didn’t buy that argument and went to court. Both the High Court and the Supreme Court of Appeals decided in favor of the male cousins. The sisters persisted and went to the Constitutional Court, the court of last resort, in this instance. Last month, the Constitutional Court decided in the sisters’ favor.

Acting Justice Margaret Victor explained, “The provisions of the preamble to the Equality Act make its nature and intended purpose clear. The consolidation of democracy requires the eradication of inequalities, especially those that are systemic in nature and which were generated in South Africa’s history by colonialism, apartheid and patriarchy. Inheritance laws sustain and legitimise the unequal distribution of wealth in societies thus enabling a handful of powerful families to remain economically privileged while the rest remain systematically deprived. In my view, this system entrenches inherited wealth along the male line. In applying this critique to the facts in this case our common law principle of freedom of testation is continuing to entrench a skewed gender bias in favour of men.”

The consolidation of democracy requires the eradication of inequalities, especially those that are systemic in nature and which were generated in history by colonialism, apartheid and patriarchy. What else is there to say?

By Dan Moshenberg

(Photo Credit: GroundUp / Ashraf Hendricks)