When Chief Justice Raymond Zondo served as a young budding article clerk at the Durban law firm of Victoria Mxenge in the early 1980s, he walked into the firm as Mlungisi, but he would later leave the building as Raymond Zondo.
The identity of Raymond would stick for the rest of Justice Zondo’s stellar professional life in the legal industry, as he served his articles with Mxenge before she was assassinated by the apartheid state in 1985 and later with Mthembu & Partners and Chennels Alberton Attorneys.
Zondo later became partner at his law firm Mathe & Zondo Inc, headed up the CCMA, became a judge, became the head of the Labour Court and eventually, this culminated with him becoming the chief justice in April 2022, succeeding his long time friend, Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
Earlier this week, Justice Zondo retold how he nagged and nagged Mxenge until she finally agreed to give him a chance to serve articles despite there being no vacancy at the time.
Zondo was speaking at the Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha on Thursday night, where he delivered the keynote address at the annual Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge memorial lecture.
Zondo worked a short while under the tutelage of Mrs Mxenge and describes her as “one of those women who had a lasting impact on my own life”.
Her firm had been getting labour work and had no expertise, but a young Zondo was thrown in the deep end and was told the Labour law would be his responsibility.
He had prior experience in Labour law from his time at the Legal Resource Centre and was identified as the driver of the new labour division by Mxenge.
“That went a long way in instilling self-confidence in me that has lasted for the rest of my life because here was this well-known lawyer who was prepared to trust me and give me such a huge responsibility in circumstances where she had no reason to have confidence in me.
“That helped me because I believed I would be able to run the department and be a good labour lawyer.
“I link to the confidence Mrs Mxenge showed in me, when I was just an article clerk. The confidence she showed in me, made me be determined to succeed in the area she believed I would be successful in.
“She is one of the women who has had a lasting impact in me, even though the time I worked under her was cut short when she was assassinated,” Zondo recalled, almost tearful.
Zondo said it was with a sense of honour and privilege that he could deliver a keynote address in honour of the Mxenges who were murdered by the apartheid government for their contribution to the dismantling of apartheid and the attainment of freedom for the majority of people of this country.
He said the Mxenges were servants of the people who dedicated their lives to helping people and advancing the struggle for liberation.
“Even after her husband was killed, she did not say I am stopping, she continued to represent freedom fighters and activists, she continued to take part in organisations fighting apartheid. She knew death was likely, but look at her courage, she was not going to be deterred, she went on,” said Zondo.
Zondo said the message for South Africans was that they had a chance today to rededicate their lives, like the Mxenges, and be servants of the people and the community.
“Mr and Mrs Mxenges were prepared to die to dismantle apartheid. The question that arises is that apartheid was dismantled politically, but, choose what area you are going to focus on and make a contribution. It does not help to criticise and do nothing. Our destiny is in our hands,” said Zondo.
What's in a name?
Zondo explained how he shared the name of Mlungisi with Victoria’s husband, Griffiths, and within weeks working at the firm she unilaterally sank the identity of Mlungisi Zondo, birthing the present day Raymond.
He explained how he got the job:
“When I came to her office, the name I was using was Mlungisi, that is how I was known, generally. But after a few weeks working in her office, she called me one day and said from now on you are not Mlungisi, you are going to be Ray,” he recalled.
Griffiths Mxenge, who was also Mlungisi like Zondo, had been brutally assassinated in Umlazi by apartheid death squad agents Dirk Coetzee, Almond Nofomela, Joe Mamasela, Brian Ngqulunga and David Tshikalanga in November 1981.
“We didn't have an argument because I immediately understood where she was coming from, but the point I want to make is that since then, a lot of people know me as Ray, they don't know Mlungisi, that is where it came from, my encounter with her,” he said.
A plaque in memory of former Chief Justice Pius Langa was also unveiled at the university on Thursday night.