‘I love a fight, but I love a fight for good even more,” says Wendy Appelbaum.
For the past three years, she has been the driving force behind a case that was heard in the Constitutional Court earlier this month. The businesswoman and successful Stellenbosch district wine farmer speaks openly, authoritatively and passionately about a cause close to her heart – that of changing South African law on so-called garnishee orders.
They are also known as emolument attachment orders (EAOs), which are court orders issued against an employer to deduct a portion, often a large one, of an employee’s salary.
Appelbaum discovered in 2013 that EAOs had been obtained against some of the workers on her De Morgenzon farm.
“Employers have no choice. They have to pay such orders, and it is usually poor people, unversed in their legal rights, who sign debt repayment forms they do not understand,” she says.
Some employees are illiterate and are often conned into buying goods they don’t need. Their salaries are then garnished so that the seller gets the money for these items.
“One of my workers wanted a basic cellphone just to send and receive calls. Instead, he was sold a smartphone that I, who travels the world, have little need of,” says Appelbaum. “He had 80% of his salary deducted with a garnishee order.”
She was furious and approached the University of Stellenbosch Legal Aid Clinic, started doing research and studied the National Credit Act as well as the Magistrates’ Courts Act.
“I found out that some workers had 100% of their salaries deducted, others had four EAOs on a single pay cheque, while the payback on another was higher than her salary. She lost her job and a microlender employed her to sell debt to her impoverished neighbours.
“I realised a great injustice was being perpetrated.”
Law firm Webber Wentzel represented the applicants on a pro bono basis.
Appelbaum paid for much of the counsel and all of the forensic analysis.
She approached many of her friends for advice and the outcome was a small class action, “which rarely happens in South Africa”.
“We concentrated on 15 ‘victims’ because it was so difficult to connect with people on farms to get their stories, affidavits and original debt contracts,” she explains.
The result was a ruling by Judge Siraj Desai in the Western Cape High Court in July last year that garnishee orders were unlawful.
He also found that sections of the Magistrates’ Courts Act were inconsistent with the Constitution.
“We wanted to scrap all garnishee orders, but they are useful in getting fathers to pay maintenance for their children. Yet, how do you distinguish between good and bad EAOs?” asks Appelbaum.
She and the Legal Aid Clinic decided immediately after winning their case last July to take the matter to the Constitutional Court, “because we wanted everyone in South Africa to benefit from it”.
The Constitutional Court heard the case on March 3 and must still make a ruling.
Depending on the outcome of the case, as many as 2.5 million EAOs could be affected.
It is a public-interest case of serious magnitude.
“The bang for my buck is huge because many lives will change because of this case. There is no doubt we will win it,” says Appelbaum.
She laughs incredulously at a suggestion that many other people in her privileged position might prefer to live the high life instead of getting involved in workers’ lives.
“We need to rectify what is wrong in our society and we cannot turn a blind eye to what is deeply unfair. I can’t live like that.”
Appelbaum, who is the daughter of Liberty Group tycoon Sir Donald Gordon, might have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but she removed it at an early age to challenge her father’s dictums.
She did so at home and then in the boardroom, where she served as a director of Liberty Investors, the insurance and property firm her father founded. Since then, she has sat on many boards, challenging decisions in her deep, confident voice, her comments often laced with racy, no-nonsense language.
She’s a great fighter for women’s rights, spurred on by her father’s condescending attitude towards women.
“My hero is feminist Gloria Steinem, and we are great mates. She had her 80th birthday on my farm.”
Appelbaum co-founded Wiphold, the first female-controlled company to list on the JSE, in the 1990s. It is primarily dedicated to the empowerment of black women.
But her great love has always been medicine, and if it were not for her father’s resistance, she would have been a doctor.
Today, she avidly follows medical advances and it’s not surprising that one of her sons is studying surgery.
She is a trustee of the Donald Gordon Foundation – one of the largest charitable foundations in Africa, which includes the Donald Gordon Medical Centre and the Gordon Institute of Business Science.
She recently founded the Wendy Appelbaum Institute for Women’s Health and is outspoken about the necessity for women to take better care of their bodies.
There isn’t the space here to list all of Appelbaum’s achievements, or the boards and organisations with which she is involved, both locally and internationally, except to mention that she’s a leading global philanthropist.
She gives away her wealth with the same energy that she hurls into her causes, and into this interview – joking and teasing with the warmth and wit that help her achieve her goals.
BUSINESS TIP: The devil is in the detail
MENTOR: Helen Suzman. She taught me to have imaginary balls
FAVOURITE BOOK: Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
INSPIRATION: A combination of men, but particularly my father, Donald Gordon, who taught me how to be a philanthropist, and my husband, Hylton, who encouraged me to be one
WOW! MOMENT: Realising when a family member was diagnosed with cancer that money is good for two things: health and education. Money for money’s sake is evil
LIFE LESSON: You have to stand up for what is right, no matter how scary that may be