Leonora van den Heever, born in Windhoek on 9 July 1926, holds the esteemed position of being the first female judge to be appointed permanently to the appellate division of the South African Supreme Court in 1991. She was the only judicial representative of her gender for 20 years. In 1968 she took silk and became a senior advocate. A year later she was appointed to the bench in Kimberley in the Northern Cape. Her photograph is in the town’s museum, in the section that marks South African firsts − the discovery of diamonds, street lights, the railway line from Cape Town.
Her first degree was in languages, Latin and English, and she holds a Master’s degree in English. Her father was a judge and she served as his registrar before she decided to study law part time while also writing short stories and children’s books. She was admitted to the bar, married, and raised three daughters while practicing from home, spending time with them during the day and working at night.
In 1979 she was appointed to the Cape Provincial Division bench, necessitating constitutional changes for the City and Civil Service Club because all judges were honorary members of the club and the club was an all male preserve until her arrival. She also served on the Appeal Court of Boputhatswana and the Appeal Bench of Lesotho.
She steals my heart, however, for her work as a trustee of the Ballet Benevolent Fund for CAPAB and as a board member of the SA Youth Orchestra. She was also chairman of the SA Library board.
In 1991 this formidable woman was appointed to the Appeal Bench in Bloemfontein where she served until she retired. Over the years she received many awards, including the Chancellor’s Medal from the University of Pretoria, an honorary Doctor of Law from the University of Stellenbosch and a Women’s Bureau Achievement Award.
This article is part of my series on famous South African women for Women’s Month.