From petrol attendant and barman to president of the Supreme Court of Appeal and now chancellor of Rhodes University. Heather Dugmore speaks to Judge Lex Mpati about his extraordinary life.
W?hen you drive around Grahamstown in Eastern Cape with Judge Lex Mpati you’re taking the tour of his life, starting at the old petrol station in Beaufort Street.
It was here, as a young man, that he worked as a petrol attendant and felt proud to be earning his own money. It was his first job after completing matric at Mary Waters High School
His family had sent him there from Fort Beaufort, where he had grown up on a farm and had attended the town’s Catholic school, which only offered classes up to Grade 8.
Our tour continues, and we drive on to the motel where he worked as a bartender.
He recalls how kind the owner and manager were to him when he told them he wanted to study law.
They encouraged him and allowed him to fit his working hours around his classes and studies.
Next is the furniture shop where he once worked as a salesman.
This was the only job he ever hated because he could not bear to see people being hoodwinked into hire purchase contracts they could not afford.
Judge Mpati’s first home in Grahamstown was the two-roomed home on Victoria Road in Fingo Village that he shared with his uncle while studying, and later with his wife Mireille.
From here we head across town to Rhodes University, where he achieved his dream of studying law, a dream that started when he was arrested for illegally operating as a taxi driver at the railway station in 1968.
“I had just completed the night shift at the garage when I decided to make some extra money, as I had the use of my grandfather’s car at the time,” he explains.
“It was December and many people were arriving by train, so I headed for the station and offered my taxi service. I was about to drive away with my clients when the police stopped me and charged me with pirating as a taxi.”
He was given the option to pay a fine or go to court. He chose the latter.
“I decided to defend myself and came up with a story about how I had gone to the station to pick up family members who didn’t arrive.
“I explained that, as I was leaving, some people at the station had asked for a lift. When I told them I didn’t have enough petrol to take them home, they gave me 30c for petrol, which is how I came to be in possession of the money, which was quite a bit at the time.
“It cost 34c per gallon for regular and 38c for super. I felt I had done fairly well when I was found ‘not guilty’,” he smiles.
It was not his first time in the magistrates’ court.
Out of interest, he had sat in on several cases when he had time off from the filling station job.
“I attended all sorts of cases – from early political trials of student activists from Healdtown and Lovedale to criminal cases.
“I would sit in the back, listening to the charges being put to people and agonising over how they tried to defend themselves. Mostly, they were black people and, not being educated, they were not able to conduct a good defence.”
He got upset when people were sent to jail simply because they couldn’t ask the state witnesses the right questions.
“It was clear to me that the justice system was simply not working well and too many people were going to jail. That is what pushed me to decide to do law. I felt they needed someone who could defend them,” he says.
Judge Mpati started his law degree at Rhodes in 1979, when he was 30.
He paid for his first year with his earnings as a bartender.
In his second and third years, he received a scholarship, which covered his studies, with some change to buy books.
By this time he had met, courted and married Mireille, who trained as a teacher and later as a nurse.
In his third year, he started working as a clerk for a legal firm in Grahamstown and stayed on after graduating.
“I mainly did criminal cases, which is precisely what I wanted to do. I was fulfilling my goal of helping people and I felt very good about it,” says the judge, who was admitted as an attorney in 1985.
“What made me especially proud was when people from my community would come up to me and tell me I had inspired them, that they had watched me go through university and qualify. It gave them the confidence to further their studies.”
In February 1989, he joined the Bar.
As an advocate, he worked on his own from his chambers in Grahamstown until 1993, when he took up the post of in-house counsel at the Legal Resources Centre and immersed himself in human rights work in Eastern Cape.
“It has always been important to me to contribute to the growth of a society in which we can respect each other, not as a white person or black person, but as human beings who want to contribute to peace and upliftment in our country.”
In 1997, after serving as an acting judge for eight months, he became a judge.
Two years later, he was invited to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in Bloemfontein, where he was permanently appointed in 2000.
Eight years later, he was appointed Judge President of the SCA.
Though he is based in Bloemfontein, Grahamstown is still his home.
He and Mireille return to their hometown whenever they can.
They now live on Knowling Street, which is part of the tour, and this is where they raised their four children.
Lyle (40) is a mechanical engineer, Dawn (38) is an attorney, Ludi (26) is in IT and Demi-Lee (21) is studying law through Unisa. Judge Mpati describes his work at the SCA as “an extremely challenging job”.
He says: “The judges at the Supreme Court of Appeal need to be the best in the country, and we need to maintain that standard. But at the same time, we need to see the judiciary transform, particularly when it comes to race and gender.
“As part of the process of transforming the judiciary, you appoint a combination of the best judges and judges with the best potential to reach the level at which you wish to maintain the court.”
In February this year, Judge Mpati was appointed Chancellor of Rhodes University.
He says: “It feels as if my life has come full circle. When I arrived in Grahamstown as a young boy, I could never have imagined that one day I would be the chancellor of the university I attended, and of which I am so proud.”
Rhodes is as delighted by his appointment. Vice-chancellor Dr Saleem Badat said of the new chancellor: “Judge Mpati personifies the values we embrace at Rhodes: of rising above self; of modesty, commitment and excellence; and of ethical behaviour. His is an inspiring story and we are honoured to have him as our chancellor.”
The judge’s life in brief
»?Born in Durban in 1949
»?Moved to a farm in Fort Beaufort in Eastern Cape as a baby. His maternal grandparents were from the Fort Beaufort region
»?Attended St Joseph’s Catholic School in Fort Beaufort until Grade 8, walking 5km a day to get to and from school.
Before and after school, he and his cousins herded the small herd of cattle they owned, to and from their homestead.
»?Matriculated from Mary Waters High School in Grahamstown in 1967
»?He was a keen rugby player and a founder member of the Southeastern Districts Rugby Union, which was affiliated with the nonracial SA Rugby Union, based in Kimberley
»?Was a petrol attendant at Albany Auto Services from 1968 to 1970
»?Worked as bartender at the Settler’s Inn Motel, and as a furniture salesman, between 1970 and 1979
»?Met and married wife Mireille in 1973
»?Started law degree at Rhodes University in 1979
»?Graduated with a BA LLB law degree in 1984, and was admitted as an attorney in 1985
»?Became an advocate and joined the bar in 1989
»?Permanently appointed to the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2000
»?Appointed president of the Supreme Court of Appeal in August 2008
»?He served on the legal committee of Sanzar, the body that governs South African, New Zealand and Australian rugby
»?Appointed as chancellor of Rhodes University in February 2013