When she was 12, little Leona Theron began selling sweets to pay for her schooling. At age 15, she began working as a cashier at OK Bazaars and 35 years later, it was announced that Honourable Judge Theron had been appointed to the Constitutional Court as one of the top judges in land.
Born and raised in Wentworth (Durban), little Leona learnt the value of hard work and sacrifice from her mother. To pay for her schooling, her mom started baking the most delicious fudge and coconut ice, which Leona helped sell. Her mom also wanted her to play an instrument so part of the money was used for piano lessons. She became such a skilled pianist that her New Apostolic Church congregation asked her to be the organist at age 14.
After matriculating from Sparks Estate Senior Secondary School in Sydenham, Leona registered at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and completed both her BA and LLB. During this time, she still worked as a cashier to fund her studies and she had a second job as a student librarian in the law library. Despite her heavy schedule of study and work, she excelled in her studies and in 1990; she was awarded with the prestigious Fullbright Scholarship for academic excellence. The Scholarship allowed her to further her studies and she opted to complete her Master of Law degree at the University of Georgetown in Washington DC.
Leona began practicing law in 1991 and in1999, the 33 year Leona became the youngest South African to be promoted to the position of Judge. She was appointed to the KwaZulu-Natal division of the high court and the first female judge of colour to be appointed to this position in KZN.
The now, Judge Theron, also served as an acting judge of appeal at the Supreme Court of Appeal from 2006 to 2010, and at the end of 2010 she was appointed as a permanent judge of appeal.
Judge Theron was appointed to the Constitutional Court on the 30th of June 2017, and began her ‘new job’ on the 1st of July 2017. The Constitutional Court, which is made up of 10 judges, is the highest court in the land and has the final say on all matters before the court. It is also has the power to overturn decisions made by parliament if those decisions is against the constitution (the supreme law of the land).
In addition to her professional achievements, she is also the recipient of many awards. She became the first South African to receive the Commonwealth Foundation Fellowship award, received the KZN Legal Forum Award for Contribution to the Development of Justice in South Africa, won the Department of Justice’s Woman Achievement of the Year in 2000, and was a 1994 Post/Natal Young Achiever of the Year Finalist. In 2014, she received a Special Recognition Lifetime Award from the Business Women’s Association for her commitment to women empowerment and her achievements as a judge.
She was also the vice-president of the International Association of Women Judges and is a founding member of its South African Chapter. She sat on the board of the Durban Playhouse, served as an adviser to the Anglican Bishop of Natal, was a board member of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of KwaZulu Natal and a board member of the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Rehabilitation of Offenders. She also serves on the council of the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges Association, and the council of the South African Judicial Education Institute.
Judge Theron says that she got to where she is because of the help she had received from others, and she would like thank those people by helping others, especially women. For most of her adult life, she has been a passionate fighter for women’s rights. Her judgements reflected this passion and in 2008, she made a judgement which forever protected the rights of women in customary marriages. Prior to her judgement, women in customary marriages could not make a claim on property if they got divorced. These women were often left with nothing while their husbands claimed everything. Judge Theron handed down a judgement which said that these women were in fact, married in community of property which meant that they could finally claim what is rightfully theirs.
In another case in 2006, while acting as a judge in Supreme Court of Appeal, the court handed down a 16 year sentence to a man who had brutally raped a woman. In an effort to escape her rapist, the woman jumped from a second floor window and sustained serious injuries. Judge Theron wrote a dissenting judgement where she disagreed with the sentence and recommended that a life sentence be handed down. She suggested that, given the level violence against women, it is irresponsible of the court to hand down such a lenient judgement and a clear message should be sent out that the law will come down hard on rapists. The court should also send out a message to women that the courts are there to protect them and defend their right to feel safe. Judge Theron is known for handing down harsh life sentences to rapists that appear before her.
Judge Theron is described by those who know her as an honest, independent-minded, tough, hardworking person that does not take nonsense from anyone. At the same time, the mother of four is also known to be a humble, kind, down to earth person with a good sense of humour.
In her personal time she still enjoys playing the piano and the organ, is a highly proficient violinist and also enjoys writing poetry. However, the mother of 1 son and 3 daughters considers spending time with her family to be the most important aspect of her life. She is full of praise for her husband, Charles, whom she considers to be the wings beneath her soaring wings. She says that marrying Charles was the best decision she had ever made.
There is a moral to the story of Leona Theron. When she was working as a cashier, punching away at that till, packing the groceries into their respective bags, could her customers have known that they are looking at the future Judge of the Constitutional Court? The moral of Judge Theron’s story is this: Never underestimate the person who is packing your groceries, filling your petrol tank, or cleaning your garden. You could be looking at the next Judge of the Constitutional Court.