Diversity - Law Firms South Africa: On The Right Course

Tuesday, February 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: Ms. Norman, please tell us something about your childhood and education.

Norman: I was born on a farm in a small town in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. My parents were blessed with seven children, and I am the eldest. My father was the sort of man who would work for a year and then go back to school for a year. Education was central to his life, and he conveyed that idea to his children. My mother worked as a cleaner at a hospital and then as a domestic worker. She was also a shop assistant. I grew up in a very close and loving family, one that - as I say - was very supportive of my educational aspirations. Even though my family had very little in the way of material resources - I grew up in a two-room house with a dirt floor - I was sent to a boarding school, Emgwali Secondary School, at the age of 13. Thereafter I attended St Matthew's High School. There I discovered that I could write poetry, and two or three of my poems were published. From St. Matthew's I went on to the University of Transkei for undergraduate studies. I hitchhiked from my home to the university. As it happened, the wife of Transkei's Minister of Justice was my mother's aunt, so the idea was that I would live with them while I studied. At the time for registration, however, I had no money for tuition, and for a moment my dream of continuing my education looked like it was going to come to an early end. I was able to persuade the dean and other university authorities to give me six months to prove myself, however, and I was allowed to enroll.

I should also mention that my participation in student demonstrations during my time at the University of Transkei meant that I had to leave the Minister of Justice's residence. Life in a place such as Transkei was very complicated.

Editor: Transkei was one of the so-called bantustans under the apartheid regime in South Africa. What was its relationship to the Republic of South Africa?

Norman: Transkei and the other bantustans were the creation of the South African government. The apartheid regime set them up as separate homelands for different groups of Africans and claimed that they were independent countries with their own governments. This was a total fiction, of course. The apartheid regime functioned on the basis of "divide and rule" so far as the majority African population was concerned, and the basic idea of the bantustans was not only to separate the blacks from the whites but also to separate the different ethnic groups of blacks from each other. Hostility among the African groups was encouraged. Notwithstanding the talk of independence, within the bantustans the South African government monitored everything very closely, and nothing took place without their consent. In order to encourage Africans to move into these so-called separate homelands, however, the South African government was forced to make investments which would not otherwise have been made. While most people were opposed to the concept behind the bantustans, they did serve to bring some benefits to a considerable number of people.

Editor: Your first job in the legal system was as a public prosecutor in Ciskei?

Norman: I obtained that job just before I graduated in 1988 with a B.Juris degree. Ciskei was also a native homeland. Through my father, I had a connection with the Ciskei Minister of Justice, which lent support to my application for a job. I was anxious to see how the justice system worked, and the experience turned out to be very valuable. As a result of this exposure, I decided in 1990, to return to the University of Transkei for an LL.B degree, which was necessary for qualification as a lawyer. The following year, while working toward my degree, I was asked to tutor students at the university on constitutional law. In 1992, having obtained the LL.B, I became a state advocate in Bisho, a position I held for three years. The highlight of that part of my career was being asked by the Attorney General to prosecute the then Chairman of State of Ciskei, who had come to office through a military coup. This was excellent exposure for me, and while the trial ended in acquittal, I gained a great deal of experience. In addition, I served as a part-time lecturer in civil procedure at the University of Fort Hare - where Mr. Nelson Mandela had studied - during this period.

Editor: You were in South Africa at the time of transition to majority rule. That must have been an extraordinary time. Can you tell us something about it?

Norman: It was an extraordinary time. Everyone was involved in the process of transition to majority rule - whether they chose to participate or not - and there was an atmosphere of excitement and hope. The life of every black person in the country was affected, and everyone knew that things would never be the same again. My particular vantage point was from within the justice system. I had a sense of accomplishment at that moment. I had a very real sense of having worked to see that Africans had an opportunity for fair treatment by the system and for a fair trial. Now it appeared that the transition to majority rule was going to result in this opportunity becoming a permanent right within a constitutional structure. When Mr. Nelson Mandela was released from prison, the government - fearing violence - requested that people stay in their homes. Instead, people poured out into the streets and public places, and all across the country there were spontaneous outbursts of dancing, toyi-toying, until the early hours of the morning. I do not think that such a moment comes very often in the life of a person or of a country.

Editor: The transition was accomplished with very little violence, which surprised many people. Why?

Norman: During the mid-80s there was a great deal of violence, and by the time we came to the transition to majority rule almost everyone believed that violence was not good for the country. The single most important factor in turning people away from violence, however, was Mr. Nelson Mandela. He spoke out very forcefully, and he said that South Africa belongs to all of us, black and white, and that we all had to live together in peace. That had an impact throughout society.

Editor: Would you tell us about your role with the Goldstone Commission in 1995?

Norman: Under the supervision of the United Nations, Judge Goldstone was appointed to look into the taxi violence that plagued the Eastern Cape Province, particularly around holiday time. I was seconded to the commission in 1995. One of the curious things about this violence was the presence of illegal firearms. What the commission discovered, however, is that most of the taxis were owned by white people and some members of the police force - who had had access to firearms under the apartheid regime - and who employed black people as stand-in owners. That was the origin of the guns. By the time the commission had finished its work, the taxi violence had come to an end.

Editor: Please tell us about your career at the bar.

Norman: At the time that I decided to enroll as a pupil with the Durban bar, I was the senior legal administrative officer at the Office of the Director General, Bisho. There were only two African women among the initial group seeking to qualify, and while there were challenges, there were also opportunities. My written work was scrutinized with care, and I found that the attention I received was very encouraging. In January of 1997 I returned to the Eastern Cape Province and joined the Bisho bar.

Editor: You are one of the very first African barristers in South Africa. Please tell us about your experiences during the early years.

Norman: There were African barristers, both men and women. In Bisho, however, I was the first African female barrister. As the only African woman, surrounded by white male colleagues, there were challenges, of course. It was difficult for me to fit within an established system, and it was difficult for the system to accommodate me comfortably. There were cultural issues. Some of them were very simple - such as laughing out loud, which is a common African trait - and others were more complicated. Most of my colleagues believed that it was important to have African representation at the bar, and they were prepared to mentor me. I think this reflects the attitude of the profession across all of South Africa. As a consequence, there is an increasing number of African students who are thinking about being called to the bar after university.

Editor: Would you tell us about your career on the bench since 2002?

Norman: I was somewhat reluctant to take on the responsibility of being a judge - I did not believe I was qualified - but it was an honor to be asked, and I thought that I could not turn such an opportunity down. Having gotten past the first trial with some success, I have gone on to serve in all three divisions of the system. The judiciary, along with the bar and virtually every other institution in South Africa, is in the process of transition, and I take pride in being part of it.

Editor: How did you come to Holland & Knight?

Norman: The South African Maritime Law Association circulated a memorandum indicating they wished to attract people from disadvantaged groups to participate in an internship at Holland & Knight in New York for training in maritime law. I did not have a background in maritime law, but I do have a keen interest in it, and my application was accepted. During my time here, I have been exposed to a great many aspects of maritime practice, including the drafting of documents, discovery issues, depositions and so on. I have worked on collision and salvage cases and have attended proceedings in both federal and state courts. I have also taken the maritime law course at Fordham Law School under the auspices of the program.

Editor: And what is next for Thandi Norman?

Norman: I will return to practice and attempt to specialize in maritime law. It is my goal to be first African woman to "take silk," that is, to become a Senior Counsel.

Editor: One of the themes of our publication is the rule of law - and all of the things that go along with it, such as access to justice, an independent judiciary, transparency in government, a free press, and so on - and specifically progress of the rule of law in places that have known a different regime. How is this proceeding in South Africa?

Norman: I think the rule of law is proceeding very well in South Africa. It is one of the few countries in the world where a former head of state - Mr. Nelson Mandela - has been called upon to testify in court and complied without a note of dissent. He said that we are all subject to the rule of law, including, and most particularly, the principal figures in government, and that serves to establish a standard to which everyone in the country adheres. As long as the law continues to be respected - and the present government has made a very clear statement of its views on this - South Africa is going to be on the right course.