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Justice Yvonne Mokgoro LLM ’90, Hon’09

July 02, 2024

portrait of Yvonne Mokgoro
Yvonne Mokgoro

Justice Yvonne Mokgoro was the first Black female judge in South Africa.

Justice Yvonne Mokgoro LLM ’90, Hon’09 grew up in South Africa under apartheid and came to study at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School on a scholarship from the Educational Opportunities Council for South Africans of historically disadvantaged backgrounds. Mokgoro came to the Law School with a distinguished career as a prosecutor and academic already behind her. When her husband was detained for his political activities while Mokgoro was studying at Penn, Nelson Mandela personally called to reassure her.

Mokgoro considered staying to pursue a doctorate at the Law School, but instead returned to her country around the time Mandela was released from prison in order to be part of the great changes sweeping South Africa. Mandela’s release was, she said, “like a dream come true. We knew that the time had come” to end apartheid.

When she was appointed to the newly-formed Constitutional Court of South Africa in 1994, Mokgoro became the first Black female judge in her country. She worked with key stakeholders to craft and certify the Constitution of South Africa, which provides the legal foundation for the existence of the republic, sets out the rights and duties of its citizens, and defines the structure of the government. The Constitution remains the supreme law of the land today.

Mokgoro describes the South African Constitution as premised not only on strong commitments to individual rights, but on the traditional African social value system known as ubuntu. Under ubuntu, members of society “take responsibility for each other’s welfare,” she said. “There’s always an obligation created in an individual to see herself or himself as part of a broader community. Where you not only benefit from being part of that community, but you also have responsibilities towards that community.”

The University of Pennsylvania awarded Mokgoro an honorary doctorate in 2009.

In 2004, the Law School commissioned photographs of notable women alumnae to better represent our community. Justice Mokgoro’s portrait is one in this series.

Explore more of the Law School’s remarkable art and architecture.