Working in labour law in South Africa takes nerves of steel but Gugu Buthelezi is fast establishing herself as an expert in the field. But no journey is only on a smooth path, especially for a woman. In this interview with veteran court reporter Tania Broughton, Buthelezi talks about her life, its challenges and how to find the balance.
Do not think you can do it all; surround yourself with good help;
Stay ahead by reading and researching;
Take time to recuperate; you cannot perform at your best if you are depleted;
Believe in yourself; the conversations with yourself determine your outlook;
The law runs in Gugu Buthelezi’s veins. Her curiosity with all things legal was piqued at a young age by her uncle and grandfather, who were magistrates, and her sister, an attorney.
And, she has taken some giant steps since graduating from the University of KwaZulu-Natal with an LLB degree in 2008.
Buthelezi first job, about ten years ago, was as a legal assistant in the Department of Education in her home province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.
Now she, and her two “incredibly talented partners” Zolani Mzulwini and Nombulelo Mtshali, who she knew from ‘varsity days’, run their own law firm with offices on Durban’s Berea.
It’s an “all round” practice - Buthelezi specialises in employment law, Mzulwini in administrative and constitutional law and Mtshali in family and commercial law.
But, back to those all-important “humble beginnings”.
“While working for government I got to work with senior legal advisors. I was involved in court proceedings to interdict an unlawful strike and I fell in love with labour law.
“I have not looked back since. I served my articles and worked as an attorney in one of Durban’s leading boutique law firms, specialising in employment law.
“I then joined a firm as an associate, specialising in labour law in the local government sphere.
“This was at a time when much of the related legislation was under review and new Acts and regulations were being promulgated. It was an opportunity to be at the cutting edge of jurisprudence surrounding the employment and discipline of senior managers in local government as well as the composition and functioning of municipal courts,” she says.
And then in 2013, Buthelezi, Mtshali and Mzulwini Attorneys was born.
As a labour specialist, she says, she mostly represents employers in government, state-owned entities and privately owned companies.
But sometimes she acts on “the other side” and is particularly proud of once representing an employee who worked for a “very high profile” politician.
“Her employment conditions and the way she was treated were just awful. The politician was highly controversial at the time and I saw it as an opportunity to hold him accountable.”
Being conscious of “what is morally reprehensible and what is legally justifiable” is a balancing act.
A client’s “political expectations” can also be challenging.
“It is incorrectly assumed that one supports all the decisions of the government of the day - when the opposite may actually be true. I manage it by not losing sight of the fact that one is rendering a professional service and must remain professional, not personal.”
And, she says, lawyers, be they working for themselves or others, have to learn to deal with failure.
“I am a practical person. I really try to keep things moving, change what I can and let be what I cannot change. By focussing on things out of your control you lose out on being in the moment in aspects of your life that truly matter.”
Buthelezi says she has two daily struggles: One is balancing working ‘on’ the business while working ‘in’ the business.
“One has to be a practising attorney which requires you to actively do the work while, at the same time, being an entrepreneur in the business, making sure you are continuously marketing and building the brand,” she said.
The other, like so many women in law, is maintaining a balanced work and home life.
Her child is five years old. Her other “child” - the business - is also five and also demands attention and dedication and adaptation and solutions as the business landscape changes.
When she has time off, Buthelezi can be found her on yoga mat - or at an interior design workshop satisfying her creative side.
Practicing in South Africa has its perks - mainly because the country’s legal framework is among the best on the continent and even around the world.
“Our Constitution is revered...it is a precedent on human rights.
“Our democratic institutions are performing well in holding government accountable and we have seen ministers, political parties and even the (former) President taken to court.
“We have attracted investors...and with recent political changes we may be heading towards even greater investor confidence and economic growth.
“We are starting to see international law firms invest in the country and merging with, and acquiring, local firms.
“As a business you must be strategically placed to benefit, contribute and assist with growth. As a new player, one must correctly identify locally based solutions for growth and success.
“For example, in Africa we have one of the fastests growing populations with a substantial middle class which has disposable income. As an entrepreneur you need to be aware of these facts and provide solutions or goods that this class will find and value.”
Buthelezi says she loves the optimism that Africans have.
“In South Africa we have been through incredibly challenging times, but we strive for a better day. We also have a great sense of humility.
“But I am still underwhelmed by the fact that we do no realise our full potential and true capabilities. We are often hesitant to pursue authentically African ideas and export them to the world.”