From an attorney representing clients at CCMA proceedings all the way to law firm chairperson and president of the LSNP.
At first sight, Sbu Gule seems to be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But, as facts would have it, he is definitely not.
City Press met up with the recently appointed president of the Law Society of the Northern Provinces (LSNP) at his Sandton workplace, where he is also chairperson of Norton Rose Fulbright law firm.
Born in the Edendale area in Pietermaritzburg to a lecturer mother and father who was a medical doctor, Gule grew up in a family that took education very seriously and all five siblings knew the importance thereof.
“I grew up in a community that said, in order for a person to develop, you had to be educated,” Gule said.
He went to school at Nichols lower primary school, proceeded to Edendale Higher Primary before heading to Ohlange High School in Inanda, which was founded by John Dube, founding president of the ANC.
At Ohlange, he was at school at the same time as Business Leadership South Africa chairman Jabu Mabuza, Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe and a number of other currently prominent people.
His initial career ambition was to become a mechanical engineer rather than going into law.
“If it wasn’t mechanical engineering, then I probably would have become a pilot but, due to the fact that our maths and science teachers were not that great in the 1970s, I ended up going to pursue a Bachelor of Arts at Fort Hare,” he said.
He had a very brief stay at Fort Hare before returning closer to home to the University of Natal. “Back then you had to apply for ministerial permission in order to go and study at a university, which was reserved for white people, so I applied and got it,” he said.
At university, he wanted to study a combination of politics, psychology and economics. “I ended up majoring in psychology and politics and I did economics up to level two,” he said.
“After graduating, I knew there was no way I could get away with just one junior degree given my parents,” he said, adding that that was when he enrolled for an LLB degree.
After acquiring the law degree, he went on to do articles at a Durban-based so-called white labour law firm.
“It was very difficult for me to establish myself as an employment and labour lawyer, who acted for what were regarded as businesses, which was seen to be oppressing the workers,” he said of his first job.
After completing his articles, in 1990 he joined Mathe & Zondo Inc attorneys, then owned by current Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.
“I learnt most of my labour law from him. He was a recognised lawyer who represented trade unions,” he said.
When the new Labour Relations Act was introduced in 1996, Zondo was requested to join the bench and that left Gule to head up the labour law division at the firm.
His next career stop was at the company he now leads after joining it in 2000 when it was called Deneys Reitz, and that was when he relocated to the City of Gold.
Joining the firm as an associate despite leaving Durban as a partner, Gule said the decision was deliberate because he wanted to prove himself first. He made partner within a year.
Seventeen years later he is now the chairperson of the company. I ask him what has kept him at the firm and the response is unambiguous.
“It is the culture and work,” he said, further pointing out that throughout his stay at the firm he has had the privilege of representing most of the major parastatals in the country at the highest level and a handful of the biggest companies in the economy too.
“I developed from an attorney who was going to court representing clients at Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) proceedings to a person who is a trusted adviser of boards on strategic employment and labour law matters. I got fulfilment in terms of my career ambitions,” he said.
He said another factor that made him stay at the firm was the corporate culture it has adopted, though he admits that the firm, like its peers in the legal fraternity, still has a long way to go in terms of transformation and women empowerment.
As the president of the LSNP, Gule admitted that despite the high number of black lawyers, the bulk of the value of the work still finds itself in the few major white-owned companies.
Gule said there was already an initiative underway through which big firms are paired with smaller firms in order to impart skills and exposure.
Among the issues that he is faced with, as president of the organisation, are the working conditions of articled candidate attorneys and the briefing patterns of legal work in the sector.
Gule denied that the law society was treating its fellow colleagues who transgress with kid gloves, a longstanding allegation that has been levelled against lawyers.
In between boardrooms and many commitments, Gule indulges in passions that include watching his favourite sports – Formula One racing, for which he travels around the world, and soccer teams Kaizer Chiefs, Arsenal and Barcelona.
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