Standing tall and proud in a dapper grey suit, Emmanuel Gasa looked completely at home in the courtroom as he was formally admitted as an attorney of the high court.
In fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d be forgiven for thinking the recently qualified Emmanuel was a veteran lawyer – but that’s mainly because at age 74 the Atteridgeville resident is about 50 years older than most newly admitted legal eagles.
At an age when most of his peers would be happy to leave their working days behind them and rest on their laurels, Emmanuel has taken the plunge and embarked on a brand-new career, proving that you’re never too old to learn. “I was determined to complete this degree. I was not going to let things like my age get in the way,” he says.
The soft-spoken father of six and grandfather of 15 has held many jobs over the years, including working as a hospital clerk, but he’s never neglected his education. The law degree he completed in 2015 was his third degree – he’d already completed a BA in 1982, a BCom in 1991 and earned his higher certificate in education in 1998. In 2002, Emmanuel found himself unemployed after working as a senior administrator for the Health Professions Council of South Africa.
He then found a job teaching an adult basic education class at Holy Trinity High School in Atteridgeville. He had expected to be teaching commerce, but was instead asked to teach legal subjects, including criminal law. Up until this point he’d never considered studying law himself, much less becoming an attorney, but he fell in love with the subjects and remained a teacher until he retired in 2011. All the while he continued burning the midnight oil to study.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Seduced by the law, he decided to head back to university. “I realized I could understand the work. I had not wanted to be a lawyer but suddenly it seemed like an option for me, even though I initially thought it was a farfetched idea because of my age.” He enrolled at Unisa in 2004.
He was always the oldest kid in class, a fact which sometimes had him wondering if he was doing the right thing, but he resolved to never quit. “When I was in law school I was in classes with people as young as my grandchildren, which was something that bothered me, but I ended up achieving what I wanted.” It took him a long time to complete his studies – 11 years – but he eventually finished in 2015.
“Studying while you are working is hard. I did not always have time for my books,” he says, explaining why it took so many years. He also had to learn Latin, as there was a lot of it in his textbooks, “so I had to work extra hard to grasp everything that I needed”.
In the final year of his studies he was invited to address a law indaba where he told all the assembled students “not to wait until they were my age before finishing their qualifications”. “I realize people are inspired by my story, thinking it’s a story of perseverance, but it’s not something I would recommend. No one should be studying at this age,” he chuckles.
A DAY OF CELEBRATION
Emmanuel’s graduation was one of the most exciting days of his life, he tells us. His late wife, Gloria, and their children attended and “it was a wonderful day! Our relatives even arranged a party at home.”
The family had much to celebrate in 2015 because his youngest child – Nomasoni, who was 26 at the time also graduated with her master’s degree in science. “It was an exciting year for our family,” Emmanuel says. Gloria, his wife of 41 years, passed away in 2017, and Emmanuel is grateful she was alive for his graduation.
“We sacrificed a lot for our children, so my graduating at that age was a blessing we were both very happy about. Even now that I have been admitted, I know she would have been very proud of me.”
BIG PRIDE FOR THE FAMILY
Having completed his degree, he went on to do his articles at a law firm as a candidate attorney, which presented a fresh and unexpected new round of challenges. “Because of my age, I was getting too much respect, which was getting in the way of my learning,” he says.
While other candidate attorneys were assigned menial tasks like running around town taking documents to courts, “out of respect for my age, they were not letting me do things like that. The younger candidate attorneys got to do that which meant that they were learning about the actual workings of the courts.”
But as time went by, he was allowed to do it. One of his sons, mechanical engineer Khulani, says he’s very proud of his father. “What baba has achieved is an inspiration.” Their dad’s achievement will always be a reminder that the Gasa family can achieve anything, says his other son, Thubalethu.
“Our kids will know that his gifts run in their blood and if they put in the required effort, they can achieve anything.” Mandla Makhanya, the principal and vice-chancellor of Unisa, said they were also very proud of Emmanuel. “We at Unisa take immense pride in the achievements of our graduates, particularly the likes of Emmanuel Gasa.”
LOOKING FORWARD TO WORK
Despite his newfound fame in legal circles, he’s not yet found himself a job. “The other thing worth noting is that I can never be a judge because I’m past the retirement age of judges,” he adds.
Emmanuel would like to open his own law firm someday. “When I was doing my articles, the firm did mostly civil work but I can do criminal work as well. I’m looking forward to representing my clients.” In between looking for work, he’s taking a well-deserved break. “I’m discovering new channels on TV I didn’t know about because I had sacrificed all my time on my books,” he says.