Chief Justice Zondo hopes to inspire legal practitioners

April 24th, 2023

The Johannesburg Attorneys Association held a Judges Function Cocktail Party on 16 March 2023 in Johannesburg. Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, the keynote speaker, gave legal practitioners words of encouragement.

The Johannesburg Attorneys Association (JAA) held a Judges Function Cocktail Party on 16 March 2023 in Johannesburg. Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, the keynote speaker, gave legal practitioners words of encouragement. Chief Justice Zondo told attendees that he hoped sharing the story of his journey would be an inspiration to them. He said that in the history of the democratic South Africa, he is the only Chief Justice to have only practiced as an attorney and not as an advocate, and, therefore, he knows the challenges attorneys face in the legal profession.

Chief Justice Zondo said he started his articles in a law firm called Mxenge and Company, as an article clerk to Victoria Mxenge. He pointed out that at that time he only had a BIur from the University of Zululand. He said that he was struggling to find a law firm that would give him articles and it was perhaps because during that time, law firms where mainly looking at people who had post-LLB degrees, and if one did not have an LLB, one should at least have a BCom degree. He pointed out that if one had an LLB, as soon as their articles were registered, they would have a right of appearance and that was helpful to law firms.

Chief Justice Zondo pointed out that the late Ms Mxenge gave him articles and when he arrived at the law firm, she told him that one of the reasons she had hired him was because he had been at the legal centre and among other things, they did labour work at the legal centre. Ms Mxenge thought Chief Justice Zondo would start a labour law department in her law firm. He said that the message he is trying to share is that because Ms Mxenge had trusted him to start a labour law department in her law firm, she showed that she had confidence in him. ‘I was just an article clerk, but she was giving me this huge responsibility of starting a labour law department. She gave me a secretary of my own, as an article clerk you could have a secretary of your own,’ Chief Justice Zondo said. He pointed that what Ms Mxenge did was very important for the rest of his career as she had instilled confidence in him.

Chief Justice Zondo said he enjoyed working for Ms Mxenge, however, she was assassinated by Apartheid agents, which caused a big seatback in his life. He added that because her other partners did not qualify to take on article clerks, he had to go to another law firm to do articles. Unfortunately, an incident of racist remarks by a secretary led him to resigning at that law firm. He pointed out that he had no plan B to where his next pay cheque was going to come from and at the time, he was the breadwinner at home, and expecting his first child.

Chief Jusice Zondo said he was connected through an acquaintance to another attorney who was opening a law firm, and they ultimately went and opened a law firm together. He added that some of the unions he had done work for previously said they did not have black legal practitioners that do labour work, they assured him that if he was ready to be on his own, they would support him and give him work, and indeed they gave him work. Chief Justice Zondo pointed out that what is important in his journey working with the unions is that they allowed him freedom to brief counsel and to do cases himself which showed confidence in him.

Chief Justice Zondo also shared his story of being in the judiciary. He said that after becoming a judge he often got asked when did he realise that he wanted to be a judge? He added that he only began thinking of being a judge after receiving a call from the Judge President of the Labour Court who wanted him to make himself available. He said before then he was not thinking of being a judge.

In his address he spoke about the time when he had a major setback. He said that in 1999 he was acting judge president of the Labour and Labour Appeal Court, before he was appointed the judge president for ten years in that court. However, his term was nearing to an end, then in 2009 he availed himself as a candidate for the Constitutional Court (CC) but was not appointed at that time. He pointed out that he wondered where he was going to end up after his term as judge president came to an end. Chief Justice Zondo said that in April 2010 he thought he would re-apply to be the judge president. However, due to challenges that arose he never reapplied. In September 2010, he added that he applied for a position at the Supreme Court of Appeal, but also did not get appointed to that court at that time even after he was shortlisted.

Chief Justice Zondo said that what was left for him was to go back to being an ordinary judge of the High Court, which eventually led him back to the Gauteng Division High Court in Pretoria. He added that he went back, he tried to find good things to being a judge in the High Court and focused on them and decided that he would not avail himself for any other appointment, due to the setbacks he had of not being appointed to other courts. But in 2011, a new Chief Justice was appointed, and he called on Chief Justice Zondo, to serve as an acting judge at the CC, later on he was nominated and appointed as a justice of the CC. In 2017, he was appointed as Deputy Chief Justice.

Chief Justice Zondo added that when he was leaving for the CC, some of his colleagues at the High Court in Pretoria told him they did not know how to look at him, as his return to that court as a judge after being a judge president at the Labour Court, looked like a demotion. He told attendees that they would face setbacks in their journeys, however, they must do their work and continue to do right and then the right things will eventually come to them.


Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.