At just 5-years-old, 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow Nozipho Dlali of Beaufort, South Africa, knew she wanted to be a lawyer. Her passion for studying the law was reaffirmed when she was in law school, as she had a strong desire to combat the racial injustices she observed in the treatment of her classmates. After working for some time as an attorney at a prestigious law firm, Nozipho determined that she could better serve her community in South Africa by helping those with less means achieve justice. So she established her own law firm.
Nozipho says that she is drawn to this work because she wants to help those who do not have a voice in society. She has dedicated the past 10 years to assisting those without the money or the know-how to access the justice system.
In this podcast, Nozipho discusses the many challenges she faced as a black woman trying to start her own law firm in South Africa, and she explains the motivations and inspirations behind her commitment to human rights advocacy and lawmaking. She also shares advice with those in the YALI Network who, like her, are trying to pursue their passion and improve their communities.
“I may not be the richest lawyer,” Nozipho says. “I’ll never get there. I will never be the richest lawyer, but I’m rich because of the people that I’ve helped along the way. So do it. Just do it. Don’t look at the naysayers. Don’t look at who says, ‘No, you’ll fail.’ It’s fine. You’ll fail. It’s OK. You’ll pick yourself up. We’re here, and we’ll support you, and let’s do it. Let’s do this. People need us.”
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: NOZIPHO DLALI, South Africa
NOZIPHO: My name is Nozipho Dlali.
I grew up in South Africa in a small town called Fort Beaufort. I’m a child of a single parent. She raised me with the help of her mom and dad, my grandparents.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICEOVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up to date on all things YALI.
Growing up in South Africa, Nozipho Dlali witnessed firsthand unfairness and injustice of poverty and the ways in which institutions were used to keep individuals and families mired in its grip. As a child, she resolved to do something to help those for whom the cycle of poverty and the justice system combined to inflict the greatest hardships.
In this edition of the YALI Voices podcast, Nozipho talks about her awakening on the issue and how she came to play a role in providing equal justice for her community in South Africa.
NOZIPHO: I actually knew when I was about 5, because like I said, I knew that I wanted to study the law, because firstly, before I went and stayed with my mom, I stayed with my grandparents. Now, I come from a family of teachers. So my grandmother was a school principal in a very tiny primary school in a farm area.
So they had about two classes, they were made of cow dung, and in one class, you had your grade ones until grade three, I think, and then grade four until grade seven. So she was the principal of this school. But now, this is a farm. And what would happen is that during orange season — it was an orange farm — they planted oranges and lemons.
So during picking season, she’d have to shut down the school and the kids would have to go and harvest, and she was living in this very minute and small little house, and that’s where for me I saw this is not fair. You know? There’s a form of injustice to all of it, and the poverty that I got to see and experience firsthand because, I mean, being in that kind of school, that really tells you that they were not paid properly.
So for me, I knew I wanted to do something about it, but I didn’t understand what until I got to grade seven. I went to a grade school, and they brought a lawyer at our school, and he was talking about the whole process of studying law and the cases that he’s dealt with, and then I knew when I was 13 this is what I want to do. So even when I was studying, and I was choosing my classes and my subjects at school, I knew I wanted subjects that will enable me to be able to study law.
NOZIPHO: So I wanted to go study law at a university that actually had a full-bodied like experience in terms of law and even the lecturers, you’ll find that those would be people that are practicing. And so, yeah, I studied there. The funny thing about the university was it also reinforced to me why also I wanted to be in this field because we stayed in races where the black students had their own races, and the white students had their races.
So I became very involved in student politics and just getting involved in — getting into positions that will enable me to be able to be the voice of students at the university as well. It was very difficult because, like I said, the university that I studied in, we had two languages of instruction. You had what was called the Afrikaans classes, which if you know anything about the history of South Africa, in 1976, the reason why it was an uprise by the young people and so many young people got killed was because they were trying to get the language Afrikaans out of schools. Now comes Nozipho in 2013 and studies at a university where it still has two mediums of instructions, which is Afrikaans and English. You found that it was very different on how lectures were conducted, and you’d find that the black students were struggling to graduate because even the content of the work is not explained as clearly as what you call the Afrikaans class, you know, students. And even their pass rate in terms of passing in record time, you’d also see it would affect … you would see that many of the black students wouldn’t pass in record time, and many of the white students would pass in record time. But you had to fight for it. You know? Because they came up with all kinds of systems to remove black students, you’ll find that they will say, “OK, if you fail this amount of courses, we remove you from the faculty.” So I had to fight very hard to stay there because I knew what I wanted, and I knew that I’m going to get it at this university that, so called, has 20 percent pass rate in terms of the law faculty. So I fought for it.
NOZIPHO: I did my articles to become as a candidate attorney in a very prestigious firm. I actually went to one of the oldest firms in the free state of Bloemfontein affecting the country because it’s over a hundred years, and same situation there. You know, you can feel that … the amount of exposure and information that you get with your white counterparts is not the same, and then on top of that, I’m a black woman.
If I can even tell a story of what happened with me was there was a time whereby they were retrenching people because they felt that they couldn’t afford to pay people and the economy is going down, and I was fortunate because I knew what I wanted, and I knew that I’m going to keep my head down because I need the information that they have for me to be able to succeed. There was a time whereby in the law firm it was only myself as a candidate attorney, the personnel assistant, which is what your [inaudible] clerks that have been admitted now to become attorneys. It was him and then my boss, the director that I was working for, were the three of us blacks left at the law firm, and they fired basically … OK, to be politically correct, they retrenched everyone else.
So it hasn’t been an easy journey for me, even when I started work, but I didn’t go to that law firm because I wanted to eventually become a director there. I went there because I wanted to learn the skills that I needed for me to be able to go back and work for my people. So immediately when I got admitted in the attorney’s role, I left them. I left them, and I went and looked for work at an organization that’s a nonprofit. So I worked for government because we were funded by government. So we were forming part of an internal structure in a government department. So I worked for the Department of Economic Development, but and an office called Consumer Protection. So what we would do is we fight for the rights of consumers in the market. Those would be marginalized people, poor people that can’t afford legal services.
So I worked there for many, many years until eventually then I went and started my own law firm.
NOZIPHO: When I speak about my own people, I don’t necessarily mean black people. For me, when I speak about my own people, I speak about anyone that cannot gain access to justice, because even in the office that I worked for, we had all kinds. We had white people, black people, Indian people.
But it’s so sad when you sit with a client and they have a case, and you know, they’re crying in front of you because they know they can’t take it to the magistrate’s court or the high courts or the normal system to get the help that they need, and you find that they received defective goods or defective service or they’re taking … the person is taking their house because they can’t afford to pay them. And you’re sitting there, and you have to help this person, and sometimes you see that there’s nothing I can do. So for me, those are the kind of people that I want to help. That’s why I chose what I did because I wanted to help those people that don’t have the voice. You know? And they don’t have the money or the ability to access the justice system. So those are my people.
VOICEOVER: Nozipho shared that one of the many motivations for starting her own law firm was that she wanted to help those without the means to have qualified representation. She also wanted to be free of the politics that inherently came with working for the government. She believed that by venturing out on her own, and partnering with like-minded people, she could make more of a difference. She also found that as a young attorney — female and black — came with significant challenges.
NOZIPHO: I started the law firm because when I went to work for that office, I realized one thing that was very critical and very unfair was that the people that were placed there didn’t have legal qualifications. They didn’t understand the act itself because now we’re a custodian of this Consumer Protection Act, so I had to revamp the entire office, but you can only do this much.
If you are a custodian of a piece of one legislation, you are only able to implement that one. You know? So you’d find that someone would come in and say I was fairly — unfairly dismissed at work, but there’s nothing you can do. And as a result of that, I can’t pay for my car that I … took to be fixed. Now that already moves you away from the act that I’m working with. So I started my law firm because I felt that it’s not fair, and it’s not enough what we’re doing in that office.
So I decided I think the best place for me to leave that space, start my own law firm, because I’ve got the tools, and then partner with people that are like-minded to do what I want to do.
NOZIPHO: The challenges that I faced, Number 1, is not being taken seriously because, first of all, you are a woman, and you are black. And the legal fraternity in South Africa is very white, especially white man–dominated, very old, very prestigious. So here comes this tiny, short, 5.3-feet woman, you know?
And I remember this one time I went to court. I’ll never forget that story, and I walked in and the presiding officer or judge asked me, “Excuse me, young lady. What are you doing here? Are you from the university?” I said, “No, actually not. I’m from …” and then I called the name of my law firm. He says, “Oh, OK.” And then I sit there, and it was like I can’t believe that this, you know, this child is in my court, and you could feel even the things that you are saying, why do you do civil? Because it was a civil matter. Why do you do civil matters? Why don’t you go to your people and do criminal matters? That would mean in my country black people, the poor and the ones that can’t afford. So … but those are the things that excite me because I like being the underdog. I actually do. So it didn’t faze me. It made me more determined because, you know, we’re not the — it doesn’t matter how you look or what people view — how people view you, as long as you can do the work and you can represent your clients the best, the best of your ability you represent your clients. That’s the most important.
The thing that inspires me is when I see my client, and I — or I meet with my client and I say, “We got your settlement.” Oh, the look on their faces when that happens, it’s amazing. I think that’s just — you just want to see that over and over again. Like, I mean, even now when I’m here, there’s a client of mine that just got a settlement. She’s been fighting with a bus, huge bus company that, you know, drove over her car. It was an accident, and they just denied liability. And this is like a young woman, black woman, and they just said, “If you can’t provide us with video evidence, sorry we can’t help you.” And then I came and I said, “Let’s go for it.” And they settled.
So it’s one of the things — even now, I was texting, asking them have they paid you? She said not yet. But at least we’ve reached that settlement. So, for me, that’s so rewarding. And also the letters that I would get for my clients when I was working for the Consumer Protection Office uniform — these old ladies and say thank you so much. You know? They see you as this little child, and sometimes they don’t trust you can actually help them. And then when it does happen, it’s like, “Oh, wow. You’re so tiny, but you were able to help me.”
So, for me, that inspires me — the ability to be — you know when you look at someone’s face, and you say we got it. They’re going to compensate you. That’s the best feeling you can ever get.
NOZIPHO: If you want to start your own business, if you want to start your own firm, do it. You’ll make mistakes. It’s not going to be perfect. Sometimes there won’t be finances. Like, I also go through those challenges. But the work that you do, there’s no quantifying it. It’s quantified by the look on your client’s face when you say you’ve been able to help them. And even if you do fail, so what? It’s better than the person was sitting at home and not doing anything. I may not be the richest lawyer. I’ll never get there. I will never be the richest lawyer, but I’m rich because of the people that I’ve helped along the way. So do it. Just do it. Don’t look at the naysayers. Don’t look at who says, “No, you’ll fail.” It’s fine. You’ll fail. It’s OK. You’ll pick yourself up. We’re here, and we’ll support you, and let’s do it. Let’s do this. People need us.
Partnerships — for me, that’s the most important. Your network, your partners. Because I know for a fact that I can’t do this by myself, and I need more lawyers, young people that will come on board and be able and willing to take these free cases or little to next to nothing in terms of their fees. So if I can get partners with those people, and even get government on board because the other thing I realize is that the money’s there.
Government, our government has the money because they allocate these funds on a yearly basis, and then they take them back because they’re not used. So, for me, the most important is not necessarily having money but having partnerships and the people that are willing that would take up these cases even though they know it might be to their own cost, or they might not even get a single cent out of it and also partner with stakeholders like your Human Rights Commission, like I said, the gender equity and all those guys to say bring those cases that you feel that they are so complex that you can’t do anything about and then we will work together to solve them.
One thing about South Africa is that it’s got very good laws. The problem is access to them. So you find that we have this piece of legislation, beautiful piece of legislation. For example, I’ll talk to one that I know the most, the Consumer Protection Act. The Consumer Protection Act says you have a right within this specific amount of time to get redress if maybe you got a defective service or a defective good, you have a right to a cooling-off period. You have a right to say after three days no, I don’t want this or just — you know, you have a right to a clear contract in your understanding that you, it’s written in clear language that you can understand. Now the problem is that here comes this person, illiterate person, and they want to apply this, and they go into the market, and the supplier or the businessperson says, “Listen, not my problem. You bought it. You take it as it is. I’m not going to fix it.” So now where does this person go? So those are the kind of unjust things that I would say we have problems with in my country or people don’t even have the access to be able to get redress.
So, for me, those are the kinds of things that I want to fix more than anything. We’ve got a beautiful constitution in South Africa. We’ve got all these beautiful laws that protect everyone, but there’s no access to them. The poor, the marginalized — like, there’s this other case that I was speaking to someone from the Agenda for Economic — Agenda for Equality.
So I think for me the most important is, yes, you have got these good laws, but how we implement them is a big challenge in my country, and the access for people that don’t have money to legal services is a huge challenge.
NOZIPHO: I’d like to say to the other members or fellows in the YALI Network, we need to work together. Otherwise, the reach or the scope of how much — the people that we can reach is going to be limited if I try and do it by myself. But if we connect, if we network and if we work together, we’ll take this work much further.
And especially the guys in the African continent, we actually need each other more than we need external stakeholders, and it’s not, not everything is about money. Sometimes we just need to get our hands dirty. The money will find us there. And there is money in Africa. So people should stop being worried so much about money and just do the work. The money will come. It’s OK. So, for me, I think that’s the most important. Let’s work together. Let’s network. Let’s build coalitions, and let’s help our people. That’s why we’re here.
VOICEOVER: Thank you, Nozipho, for sharing your story with the YALI Network, and for the work you do in providing sustainable legal solutions and challenging unjust laws on behalf of those who most need an advocate.
Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast.
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