Retiring KZN legal brain an inspiration to all

2014-04-01 00:00

AN inspiration to his colleagues and a “walking library” is how newly retired KZN deputy director of public prosecutions, Gert Engelbrecht SC, was described by fellow members of the legal profession.

Engelbrecht, a shy and self effacing man who is recognised as “one of the top legal brains in the country”, has spent almost four decades imparting his legal knowledge as an advocate based at the Pietermaritzburg office of the KZN DPP, formerly the attorney-general of KZN.

He officially retired yesterday.

He previously also ran a successful private practice in Pietermaritzburg for a period of about five years.

In 1981 a car accident tragically rendered Engelbrecht a paraplegic, but notwithstanding his disability he returned to work and is regarded by his fellow lawyers as an “icon” of the legal profession.

This week, Engelbrecht told The Witness he had intended to leave the office “without a fuss” and agreed to an interview only to illustrate to other disabled people and their families the real possibility of a meaningful life with a disability.

Engelbrecht had found himself paralysed from the shoulders down and permanently confined to a wheelchair at the age of 33 years, with a young wife, Judy, and two children, Heidi and Jacques, to support.

He cannot use his hands or limbs and as a result requires the constant care of up to three caregivers to cater for his physical requirements.

At the office he had a fourth caregiver.

After nine months of rehabilitation in hospital and at home, Engelbrecht returned to his practice in 1982.

“The first two years were purely an exercise in adapting to what seemed like a far-fetched dream of earning a living again,” he says.

During this difficult period, and throughout his further stay at the (Pietermaritzburg) Bar, his colleagues paid his Bar fees and rental for his chambers, something he says he will always be grateful for.

As Engelbrecht’s rehabilitation progressed, he was able to master some basic skills again, like writing and turning a page. However, the obstacles he encountered are too numerous to mention, and his financial situation suffered.

In 1985 he left the Bar and rejoined the attorney-general’s office in Pietermaritzburg for the second time, having previously worked there from 1975 to 1978.

Although only appointed on a temporary basis and at a very junior level, a new career then loomed for Engelbrecht.

“The early and middle eighties saw some of the most turbulent years in the history of KZN with numerous murders committed, mostly politically inspired,” said Engelbrecht.

Because of his experience as a senior advocate at the Bar, Engelbrecht was assigned to many of these and other serious cases.

He says after five years as a temporary “junior” he asked his head office what his career prospects were.

“The response was a curt five-liner.”

It was not the policy for the government of the day to permanently appoint disabled people.

However, luckily for Engelbrecht, when the new political era emerged he was permanently appointed and promoted.

Shortly after the new government came to power he was appointed a deputy director of public prosecutions.

In 2002, former president Thabo Mbeki awarded him the status of senior counsel.

Engelbrecht said the present government actively encourages the employment of disabled people and even pays for their assistants when necessary — a huge incentive for disabled work seekers.

He cautioned, however, that disabled people will have to try much harder and adapt their ideals and goalposts at times in their pursuit of success. “If you do not get that which you love, love that which you do get,” is his advice.

For Engelbrecht, his passion has always been his work.

ENGELBRECHT’S daughter, Heidi, said the most important quality he had instilled in her and her brother from a young age was integrity and perseverance. “To never leave anything you can do today, for tomorrow.”

He’d never allowed his disability to get in the way of a positive attitude.

“He is passionate about the law and a painful perfectionist. He is the epitome of hard work. I don’t think anyone realises how many hours he spent behind his desk at home every night after work and weekends. He is a true inspiration to not only disabled, but able bodied people as well,” she said.

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