Advocate fulfils late dad’s dream
Ngcukaitobi on brink of achieving ‘silk’ status after meteoric rise in profession
At the age of seven, a young boy in Cala vowed to finish what his father could not.
And now, after just eight years at the Johannesburg bar, advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi hopes his nomination for silk status has his old man looking down on him with pride.
It’s hard to know really, having lost his dad, Gcinabantu Hutchinson, at such a young age, but the notion of having achieved that dream fills Ngcukaitobi, 41, with an overwhelming sense of achievement.
He now awaits the nod from President Cyril Ramaphosa so that he can add the two most desired letters in legal circles – that of “SC” – behind his name. “It is a signal honour because the recommendation comes from my colleagues at the Bar, including junior counsel and senior counsel,” he said.
“But it is daunting as well. Good advocacy is complicated by the need for confidence and self-doubt at the same time,” he added this week.
Ngcukaitobi obviously has both qualities, as an advocate is usually only considered for silk status after 12 years at the Bar.
The young advocate gripped SA’s attention when he formed part of the EFF legal team arguing for the state capture report to be released in the North Gauteng high court in 2016. Many said he outshone his senior colleagues and even “stole the show”.
Since then he has authored a book on the history of black lawyers, land dispossession and constitutionalism, titled The Land Is Ours: South Africa’s First Black Lawyers and the Birth of Constitutionalism, and signed a contract with Penguin for publication in 2020 for The Trial of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe: An Epic and a Tragedy.
Ngcukaitobi recently represented Nelson Mandela Bay ANC councillor, Andile Lungisa, convicted of assaulting a fellow DA councillor, in the high court in Makhanda, where he cut his teeth as a young lawyer under the guidance of Eastern Cape High Court judge Clive Plasket.
With a specialisation in public, labour, competition and land law, in March 2014 Ngcukaitobi was appointed as an acting labour court judge, and in June 2015 became an acting judge in the land claims court.
“I am an activist. I believe in the role of politics as a catalyst for economic and social change. Law is important because it disciplines and controls the practice of politics,” he said.
“Without the rule of law, there would be arbitrary and excessive use of political power, in the name of the people, but against their interests. Although I take on cases with political undertones, I am always aware that social change will not come from from political action.
“So the point of law is then the channelling of political energy to the right ends.”
Asked what his views were on former president Jacob Zuma’s counsel not being permitted to do his opening address in Zulu, and if he felt the courts still had a long way to go in terms of transformation, Ngcukaitobi law, but said the main failure of the state was that it had not made indigenous languages, languages of record.
“We are compelled to speak English even though the majority of people in this country speak African languages. However, although language plays a powerful symbolic role, it would be a mistake to reduce the slow pace of transformation to language.
“Problems of access to legal services, costs of adjudication and the slow pace of judgment delivery present material barriers to an accessible justice system. Most of these are practical problems which can be resolved.”
Ngcukaitobi obtained degrees from Walter Sisulu University and Rhodes University and also lectured at Nelson Mandela University.
Ngcukaitobi’s father died in an accident in 1983, when he was just six years old.
In Xhosa tradition, one year after someone passes away, there is a ceremony in which possessions are distributed to the family.
This was when – for the first time – Ngcukaitobi spotted his father’s law books and learned that he had been studying law through Unisa.
“His own studies in law were complicated by apartheid. He was in his 30s when he started reading for law, having worked in the mines before. But it was also cut short by death, having died at the young age of 38.
“I think a culmination of his own dream through his son must fill him with satisfaction. If not him, then I think I am personally happy to have achieved his dream,” Ngcukaitobi added.