Q&A Sessions: Zanele Mbuyisa — For the love of people-centred law

You were part of the team that successfully took on 30 mining companies on behalf of mine workers who contracted silicosis in a class action law suit. Now you’re fighting for Uber drivers to be treated as employees. How did you get to work on these class actions? 

I don’t know whether to call it fate or things working out. When I was at university, doing law like what I’m doing now is precisely what I wanted to do. But at that time, I didn’t even know what it looked like or who was doing it or how to go about it. 

After I finished law school, I went to work at the Wits Law Clinic. Then I was hired by Leigh Day, the UK firm with which I now do these cases. We started working together on the Cape asbestos case [in which financial compensation was secured for thousands of injured workers in the Northern Cape who became ill from asbestosis].

I moved around a bit and ended up in their offices in the UK. There, we were contacted by former gold mine workers in Welkom who wanted to pursue possible legal action against the mining company they used to work for, for silicosis. From then on, it was one case after another. 

Can you give us a glimpse of just how complex class litigation is?

In a class action, it takes a lot longer to prepare the case before you get to court to apply for certification. You have to present a trialable case, meaning you have to give evidence in your papers to show the court that if certification is granted, you will get a trial on this issue. Some evidence you have to get upfront, and that takes money. A large number of these communities that come to us have no money. You’re doing it on a contingency basis, and it’s a risk from your own pocket. It can take a year just to get your papers together to launch.

How far is the Uber class action? 

We haven’t filed yet. We deliberately did not say when exactly we’re going to because we don’t want to give people false hope. The amount of work that goes into collating paperwork and all that … but we are close. 

Have you always wanted to be a lawyer, like every little kid?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pilot or lawyer. But I sucked at math or didn’t want to apply myself very much, to be quite honest. I couldn’t be bothered. But law was the obvious choice. And I’m glad I did. I love law. 

You cofounded the Haki Legal Clinic in Johannesburg, which provides free or low-cost legal assistance to people who cannot afford legal services otherwise. Why did you choose people-centred law?

A large part of it has to do with the Wits Law Clinic. When you do class actions, you are busy all the time, and there was this period when I was suddenly not as busy as I normally was. I was suddenly calling my friends and family that I had neglected. They were shocked [laughs]. I knew that another class action suit would come. But I also wanted to do something different. 

The way we structured Haki Legal Clinic is different. [Law clinics] want quality lawyers, but you get funding, and all the money goes to getting the quality lawyers, and they’re expensive. So you settle for juniors, or you get mid-experienced lawyers if you are lucky. 

To avoid that, my firm [MBM Law] committed to always do Haki litigation at a fraction of the cost. That way, you take away resources going to salaries for quality lawyers. If you work for my firm, you’re going to do Haki work. 

We’ve been lucky because the advocates that we brief and other lawyers that we work with have now donated their time to doing Haki cases with no funding. I did not expect the level of support I’ve received from people. You know, people want to do good. 

Which of your cases have remained most in your mind? 

The one case we had was of a woman married for several years. Her husband met somebody else. She had stopped working. She tells him she is going home to Cape Town. He says, “Go, I don’t care.” She comes from a poor area in Cape Town. Back home, she builds a life for herself. Then this man issues an urgent application here in Johannesburg to take her kids away from her because of where she lives. 

Honestly, we are not many at Haki, but I have the most amazing team. 

I mean, they worked weekends and nights to defend that urgent application. We managed to prevent that and get a parenting plan in place, and she still has her kids. 

Such cases are a shock to me because I thought there were avenues in place already to help people. Last week [a colleague] made an urgent application for a blind woman who was being evicted because she couldn’t afford to pay rent. 

Tell me a little about growing up.

I grew up in Vosloorus and was raised by a single mother. You know how black mothers are — very tough, very strong. My toughness and my strength definitely come from her. She was not a suffering-fools kind of person. She had a saying: ukhala uhamba [cry along the way]. 

Our mothers could be hectic, and we had a complicated relationship because I didn’t understand why she was so difficult. Now I’m older, and I appreciate some things about our relationship. But I do think she could have been softer about other things. 

What are some of your thoughts on transformation in the industry?

You have every right to be here. However, it happens every day [that women are told they don’t have that right]. I think it’s worse for black women because we get it not only from our white counterparts, but we also get it from black male counterparts. It’s a constant fight. 

From my days in court, every day I remember, there would be someone trying to belittle you. Male counterparts would shela (make advances) at you as a way to belittle you. It was their way of putting you in a box. And it doesn’t matter how uncomfortable you are. First of all, you don’t want this advance, you are at work. You are a professional. But no, they have no problem doing that.

I needed to learn that I love my strength. It is who I am. 

What is your favourite pastime besides being a workaholic?

Good books and music. I go through this process — if it’s hectic at work, then I read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi books. They are my go-to. If it’s mellow, then I’ll go through your mainstream stuff and maybe some heavy reading as well. I always have music in the background. When I’m working it gets me in the zone. I’m quite a secluded person. I’m loud, yes, but secluded. 

Your home is your sanctuary. Where is your favourite spot?

Lately, it’s my garden. I have become that person. My garden isn’t huge but I will go out there to water or replant something. I am 47, so I guess I am going to start adopting some old-people traits!

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Athandiwe Saba
Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession.

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