Newly appointed chief justice Raymond Zondo on life, love and being the most watched man in SA

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Judge Raymond Zondo was inspired to become a lawyer after learning about the role they played in struggles for freedom. (PHOTO: Sharon Seretlo)
Judge Raymond Zondo was inspired to become a lawyer after learning about the role they played in struggles for freedom. (PHOTO: Sharon Seretlo)

With great power comes great responsibility, the famous saying goes – and Raymond Zondo just got handed a whole lot more responsibility when President Cyril Ramaphosa finally made his long-awaited announcement: the position of chief justice of South Africa will be filled by the state capture judge.

He will start his new role on 1 April, leaving his current post of deputy chief justice vacant.

“The position of chief justice carries a great responsibility in our democracy," Ramaphosa said. "As the head of the judiciary, the chief justice is a guardian of our constitution and the laws adopted by the freely elected representatives of the people.

"The chief justice stand as the champion of the rights of all South Africans. I have every confidence that Justice Zondo will acquit himself with distinction in this position.”

In January, YOU visited the judge at his home in KwaZulu-Natal and got to know the man behind the robes a bit better.

When he was asked to head up the state capture inquiry, he didn’t hesitate to take the job. He knew presiding over a commission that could change the path of South Africa would be a huge responsibility, but Judge Raymond Zondo felt honour bound to do it.

For the past four years, with the world looking on, he’s grilled politicians and others about their role in state capture. He’s stared down people who had angry outbursts and displayed immense calm when things threatened to get out of hand.

When we meet the acting chief justice at his Durban home on an overcast and humid Thursday afternoon, he’s relaxed and far from the fierce legal expert South Africans saw on screens day in and day out.

Gone are the suits and ties we got to know him in – he’s dressed casually in navy trousers and a navy kaftan-style top with tribal embroidery.

The judge is warm and welcoming, easy to laugh and quite down-to-earth. 

His home at the end of a quiet street is very much like the man – no fuss or frills. The garden is lush and there’s a small pool but there are no ostentatious displays of wealth nor the sky-high fences that so often tells you someone of importance lives in a place.

In the lounge, we sink into cream leather couches. Next to a tranquil painting above the fireplace, is a framed image of Nelson Mandela in his Robben Island prison cell, and a Christmas tree with all the trimmings is still set up in one corner. 

But taking down the tree was the last thing on his mind: the judge has been consumed with filing the first part of the Zondo report on State Capture by the start of the year.

It’s been a long four years since the commission began and he’s eager to get it done. He submitted the first report on 4 January and will submit the final two parts by the end of February.

The looting that has hollowed out the state keeps him awake at night. “The money that is lost to corruption should be helping people who are in greatest need of services. That is money that could be used in hospitals or build toilets in schools,” he says.

The quality of education in rural schools and dysfunctional hospitals also worry him.

Yet the acting chief justice doesn’t feel a sense of hopelessness. We can all play a role in making the country a better place to live, in big and small ways, he believes.

“It is important that we continue to have hope,” he says. “We mustn’t wait for somebody else to do something – in your own way, every day, you need to do something that you know makes South Africa a better country.”

 State capture, corruption, Judge Zondo
The last photo taken of Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge, who helped train Zondo early in his career (Photo by Gallo Images/Sunday Times Archive)

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As a young boy growing up in Kromhoek and Ixopo, two small towns in KwaZulu-Natal, he had no intention of becoming a lawyer.

“When I was in primary school, there were three occupations I thought about,” the 61-year-old says. “One was that I would be a Catholic priest, which means I would not have married. The other was that I would be a teacher. I seem to think that at some stage I would be a policeman.

“But when I got to boarding school (St Mary’s Seminary in Ixopo), I became attracted to law. I decided that I would do it and the rest is history.”

Did the political climate of the time influence his decision to go into law? To some extent, yes – but his study of history played a bigger role, he says.

“It was connected in part to learning about the French Revolution and the freedom struggles in certain parts of the world. In a number of those countries where they had freedom struggles, lawyers seemed to play a very important role and I think that was part of what attracted me.

“In due course I linked that to our own struggle and people like Nelson Mandela being lawyers. That’s what really attracted me to law.”

But he almost didn’t become a lawyer – if he hadn’t had help he may not have been able to study further.

 State capture, corruption, Judge Zondo
Zondo studied at St. Mary's Seminary in Ixopo where he first fell in love with history and tennis. (PHOTO: FACEBOOK_CAROLE EILERTSEN)

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During his interview for the deputy chief justice post, Zondo moved many to tears when he detailed growing up in poverty as one of nine children, and how businessman Suleman Bux was instrumental in helping him get to where he is today.

His mom previously worked as what was called a nurse aid in a hospital or clinic. She lost that job and worked as a shop assistant which she lost two years before Zondo matriculated and he was expected to find a job after matric in order to help the family.

As he believed that he was going to get a bursary to pursue his law degree, his problem was how the family would survive while he was studying at university as there would be nobody working in the family. Mr Bux stepped in to help and allowed his mother to come into his shop once a month and obtain groceries for the family for the three years necessary to complete the junior degree.

That was agreed to be a loan that he was going to pay back to Mr Bux after completing his law degree but which Mr Bux later asked him not to repay to him and asked him to assist others.

“There are people who have allowed me to stand on their shoulders,” he says. “My mother made huge sacrifices so that I could get an education and Mr Suleman ‘Solly’ Bux also helped.” 

Zondo holds a B Juris degree from the University of Zululand, an LLB (bachelor of law) degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and three LLM (master of law) degrees from Unisa.

Early in his career he worked at the Legal Resource Centre in eMpangeni, north of KwaZulu Natal before joining the practice of Mrs Victoria Mxenge in Durban. Mrs Mxenge told him that the law firm took him as an articled clerk (candidate attorney) even though it did not have a vacancy for an articled clerk because it wanted to start a labour law department and they were aware that the Legal Resources Centre, where he had spent about a year, was doing a lot of labour law work. She helped him to grow, he says. “She showed a lot of confidence in me by simply saying, ‘We don’t know this field of law, you take charge and just make sure everything’s done right.”

How he was treated in the early days of his career shaped the kind of leader he grew to be and how he treated colleagues and subordinates. “One of the things you try and do is instil confidence in them and let them know they are capable – they can achieve, if they just work hard,” he explains.

He’s come a long way since those early days. He’s been a judge for more than two decades, starting with his appointment to the labour court in 1997.

He’s been a judge in the constitutional court since 2012 and in 2017 replaced Justice

Dikgang Moseneke as deputy chief justice of South Africa. He’s currently acting chief justice after Judge Mogoeng Mogoeng retired last year.

However, of all the legal appointments, none have been so important as heading the commission investigating state capture.

 State capture, corruption, Judge Zondo
Zondo cuts a relaxed figure at home, laughing often as he talks about his life and career. (PHOTO: Sharon Seretlo)

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“I had about seven minutes to think about it, but it didn’t take me long to agree,” he tells YOU.

Zondo says he was aware of other people who’d declined the job but saying no was simply not an option for him. “We couldn’t have a situation where I, as part of the leadership, saw a problem and declined to do anything about it when asked,” he says.

“I took the view that somebody had to do it and there was no reason why it shouldn’t be me. There was no hesitation on my part.”

He faced several challenges, including intense media scrutiny. At first, he felt like he was under a microscope.

He jokes he’s the only judge in South Africa whose been watched this closely for the things he says and doesn’t say, and is relieved that part of the commission is done.

“I had to get used to sitting there knowing that I was being watched every minute of every day beyond the borders of South Africa. But whatever has happened, had to happen because somebody had to do this national assignment.”

 State capture, corruption, Judge Zondo
While at home, Zondo takes a moment to admire the garden, something he doesn’t often have time for. (PHOTO: Sharon Seretlo)

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Once he files the third part of his report, he plans to rest and spend more time with his family.

Zondo has been married to his wife Sithembile for 32 years. He fell in love with her the minute he laid eyes on her, he tells us.

“I was at the post office in Ixopo helping an old woman fill out some forms when a young woman walked in. As soon as I saw her, something in me said, ‘That’s my wife.’ “Unbeknown to me, she was the granddaughter of the old woman I was helping and that is how we met,” he says smiling fondly at the memory.

Sithembile and their four kids, who he prefers not to name, have been incredibly supportive over the past few years, but he admits they’ve suffered because of his job.

The grandfather-of-three says work often took over his life and he spent 25 years working in Gauteng while his family lived in Durban. “I have been like a visitor in the house so the one thing I look forward to is spending more time with the family.

“I don’t think I give my family the time that they deserve,” he adds. “I think they got short-changed in the process, but I continue to want to do better.”

He also wants to spend more time doing the things he loves. His hobbies include listening to music – he’s a big country music fan – and playing tennis, though he laments he hasn’t played in long time.

He watches soccer but says he no longer has a local team after his team disappointed him one too many times.

Something else that disappoints him are people who take too long to return his calls.

As for his cooking skills, Zondo says he wouldn’t starve if left alone. “I used to cook, but of late, whenever I’ve tried, I’ve messed up,” he says.

While he cannot make it, his favourite meal is ujeqe (steamed bread) with either lamb or chicken curry.

 State capture, corruption, Judge Zondo
Sitting in a cool shaded part of the garden, Zondo reads through a book about the Constitutional Hill. (PHOTO: Sharon Seretlo)

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For now, he doesn’t have the luxury of examining his shortcomings as it’s time to get back to work on the second and third part of the report.

He credits the work of the teams that worked with the commission for any successes, as well as the overwhelming support received from South Africans. “All your support kept us going.

“It’s been a gruelling four years,” he adds. “We might not have done everything right, but we did the best we could.” 

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