Newsmaker: Zondo’s rise from poverty to the bench

2012-08-18 16:05

He’s not happy with reports claiming he was a ‘preferred candidate’

South Africa’s newest Constitutional Court judge was baffled by media reports that he was considered a shoe-in for the job.

On Tuesday, president Jacob Zuma announced that he had decided to appoint Judge Raymond Zondo to a position in the country’s top court which had been left open for almost a year.

In an interview with City Press this week, Zondo said he was very pleased with his appointment and that being “part of (the Constitutional Court) would, in my view, be something that every judge would like to achieve in their career”.

But a lack of judges applying for the court has been precisely what has dogged the Judicial Service Commission’s (JSC’s) attempts to fill the position left open when former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo retired last October.

Zondo said he “wasn’t happy” about media reports that suggested he was the preferred candidate for the job – such reports, it seems, had “jinxed” him professionally before.

“In 2010, when I was a candidate for the (Supreme Court of Appeal) there were newspaper articles saying I was a frontrunner and I wasn’t appointed. So when newspapers started saying I was a preferred candidate (this year) I said: ‘Oh my goodness, I’m not going to be appointed.’”

Zondo said he wouldn’t have been surprised if any of the other three candidates – Supreme Court of Appeal judges Mandisa Maya, Robert Nugent and Lebotsang Bosielo – had been appointed.

The JSC was only able to draw up a list of judges after postponing the deadline for applications twice, a situation which sources in legal circles said was fuelled by perceptions that Zondo was the frontrunner and that applying for the job was a formality.

Zondo, wearing a red tie and an infectious grin, spoke to City Press in his chambers at the Palace of
Justice at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria this week.

He was appointed to the high court in 1999, and was Judge President of the Labour Appeal Court from 2000 until 2010.

Zondo’s specialisation in labour law stretches back to the days when he did his articles at the firm of renowned anti-apartheid activist and lawyer Victoria Mxenge.

“When she took me (on), she did not have a post for me, but she said she took me because I was phoning her too often, harassing her,” joked Zondo.

Mxenge tasked Zondo with setting up a labour-law unit to deal with labour matters alongside the political matters already being brought to the firm by trade unions.

Getting to that point was no mean feat for Zondo.

Born in 1960, he came from a  “very poor” background in Ixopo, in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

With nine sons and daughters, Zondo’s mother saved money from jobs as a nursing aide and shop assistant to ensure that her children could be educated. His father died when Zondo was still young.

With the help of bursaries, Zondo was able to complete a B.Juris degree at the University of Zululand, as
well as an LLB degree at the University of Natal.

For the latter, he had to obtain special permission from the minister of education to attend a “white university”.

“It gives me a certain perspective, particularly into young people who come from poor families.

“They are sometimes very bright or determined to have a future, but do not have any opportunities,” he said.

Zondo said that while “a lot has been done, we are far from getting to a stage where we can say we’re done”.

He believes that the independence of the judiciary in South Africa is not at risk.

“There may be statements made in general that one would prefer were not made, but I wouldn’t elevate them to constituting a threat to the independence of the judiciary.

“At this moment I’m not aware of anything I would consider to be a threat to the judiciary.”

It’s relatively rare for a sitting judge to agree to a press interview.

So what made Zondo set aside some time for City Press?

Quite simply: “I thought there may be a lot of people from rural areas, poor people who might be encouraged to know that I have their background ... to know that they may also be able to achieve certain things.”

Judge Zondo is married with four children.

He met his wife in a post office in 1983 – he was helping her grandmother fill in forms.

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