Mom, you were so right

By admin
01 April 2011

From the windows of his office at Davis Polk & Wardwell firm in New York City Siphile Buthelezi (27) can see all the way to the tip of Manhattan. The double-glazed windows keep out the city noise and it’s quiet as he talks to us on the phone.

He sounds overwhelmed by the scene before him.

“I can see the Statue of Liberty. I’m watching pigeons on the roof of Grand Central Station,” he says. “I still can’t believe it sometimes. How many of the kids I grew up will ever have this opportunity? Some days I still think I’m dreaming.”

And it’s like a dream for the son of a domestic worker and a construction worker, a dream he realised with the help of the SA Visiting Lawyer Programme which gives lawyers from historically disadvantaged groups the chance to gain experience at American law firms and investment banks.

Siphile had a modest upbringing but it’s taken him a long way. He talks about his youth in a township that experienced its fair share of political violence in the ’80s.

In 2003 he went to the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Westville to register for a law degree. His mother, Thandiwe, had handed him R20 for living expenses and sent him on his way with the promise, “God will provide.”

Siphile didn’t have the R3 000 needed to register but his mother’s employer generously provided him with the money.

“She wasn’t the only person who helped me. I met fellow student Nokhuthula Buthelezi when I was registering and she took me under her wing. I’ll never forget their kindness.”

After graduating in 2006 he moved to Johannesburg to work at law firm Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs before moving to Bowman Gilfillan in 2008.

“Associates move around to gain experience. I felt I could learn more at Bowman.”

He thrived at the firm and plans to return there when his time in New York ends.

Meanwhile he’s experiencing as much as possible in New York, even though he works a punishing 50-hour week. He has joined a church choir in Harlem and every Thursday he practises with Inspirational Voices at the Abyssinian Baptist Church there.

Siphile is determined to make the world a better place and he’s the driving force behind the Back to Kasi project. This group of successful professionals return to township schools to show children there are positive role models for black youth.

“Like other young black professionals I was also guilty of fleeing the townships as soon as I could for the comforts of suburbia. So who are the people who become role models for township kids? It’s the gangsters. And we can’t blame kids for wanting to be like that if that’s all they know.”

Read more about Siphile's journey in YOU, 7 April 2011.

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