South Africa


It takes a (KwaZulu-Natal) village to raise a Chief Justice

It takes a (KwaZulu-Natal) village to raise a Chief Justice
SA’s new Chief Justice, Raymond Zondo. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

A journey back to the roots of SA’s new Chief Justice, Raymond Zondo, takes us to a small village in Ixopo in southern KwaZulu-Natal.

We arrived at Emazabekweni, the birthplace of Raymond Zondo, almost a week after his appointment as our new Chief Justice by President Cyril Ramaphosa. The road leading to the village is made of gravel and is almost impenetrable during heavy rains. Youth mill around the road, doing nothing.

The main source of income here is social grants and some of the villagers supplement it by planting their own gardens.

Many residents here, especially the young, said they didn’t know Zondo personally but they often hear about him on the news. But there were a few elders who had intimate knowledge of him.

Read in Daily Maverick: Bravo, Judge Zondo – South Africa now needs a total reboot

The house in which Zondo grew up only has walls still standing. In the late 1980s, when Zondo was a human right’s lawyer at the Legal Resources Centre in Durban, it was torched during the political violence between the Inkatha Freedom Party and supporters of the ANC. Zondo’s family members fled the area and established another home in Jolivet, about 30km away.

Mebbie Zondi from Emazabekweni in Ixopo is proud of Judge Zondo. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Mebbie Zondi (63) lives in a house across the dirt road from the burnt-down Zondo house. She said she knew the Zondo family, as they grew up together.

“Raymond was not in politics, as he was interested in church and his studies. He was a hard worker, polite and friendly,” she said. Zondi said she was working in Durban when the Zondo homestead was burnt down. “My mother told me that the mobs came at night and she had to hide in the pit latrine toilet when they burnt down the Zondo home. The mobs were burning houses indiscriminately.”

Busisiwe Miya (71) said she came to know Zondo when she married her husband in 1975. Her husband was a local from Emazabekweni.

“At the time, his father had passed on and his mother, who was not well health-wise, was struggling to raise the children. She often held piece jobs here and there to put the food on the table.

“Ray and his mother, Ntombi Hellen Zondo, were regulars at the church. In fact, he was an altar boy (or server) in our church. At school he was very bright, an A-class student who passed his classes with flying colours. Everybody in the church, in the community, wanted to help him succeed.”

After finishing primary school at Emazabekweni Primary, he was enrolled at St Mary’s Seminary in Ixopo, where Catholic priests and other clergy were taught.

“On holidays, he came to help in people’s fields to help his mother to put food on the table. I remember he became very close to my husband, tilling fields and helping with other work in the fields. He was very industrious,” said Miya.

Snenjabulo Sithole, a teacher at Emazabekweni Primary School in Ixopo, says Raymond Zondo is a source of inspiration to the learners at the school. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

The schools that Zondo went to

Snenjabulo Sithole, a teacher at Emazabekweni Primary, said Zondo is a source of inspiration to the learners at the school.

“On Friday morning we had a prayer in his [Zondo’s] honour. He has put our school and our area on the world map. We tell the children that, just like him, they can achieve anything that they put their minds to,” she said.

Sanelisiwe Dlamini, a Grade 5 learner here, concurred. “I want to study hard like Justice Zondo. My aim is to become a doctor,” she said.

St Mary’s Seminary, which can be found at the end of a long, winding dirt road about 6km from the small southern KZN town of Ixopo, now stands as an old but majestic, derelict brick building with long windows and a rusting zinc roof.

It was started as a Catholic school for European and later Latin American boys to train for priesthood. In the 1900s it began to enrol African boys. According to former students, all the teachers there were either nuns or priests.

The school has since closed down and about two years ago it was turned into a private nursing college but that, too, has since ceased to exist.

Joachim Ngcobo remembers schoolmate Raymond Zondo from St Mary’s Seminary in Ixopo. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Joachim Ngcobo, a caretaker at St Mary’s Seminary Boarding School, said when he enrolled there in 1978, the school was still a boys’ boarding school for would-be Catholic priests. He said all of the students were black and one of them was the recently appointed Chief Justice, Raymond Mthuthuzeli Zondo.

Ngcobo remembers the baritone learner very well.

“Ray is two years my junior. But I found him in the school when I enrolled in 1978. All of us were expected to become priests. I dropped out two years later and [Ray] and others continued with school until they finished high school. I remember him very much because he was a very zealous Catholic, first to attend mass and choral practice. He had the biggest voice in the whole school.”

Essop Hajaree, owner of Buzz Eye Shisa Nyama in Ixopo, is proud of Judge Raymond Zondo’s success. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Essop Hajaree, the 63-year-old owner of Buzz Eye Shisa Nyama, said he also remembers Zondo as a young star.

“This is a small town where everyone knows each other, especially back in the days… I remember also when his mother worked for the Bux family business.

“I am very happy that he has been appointed the Chief Justice of South Africa. Everybody is happy about his appointment…We hope he will continue where he started so that all the crooks can be arrested, prosecuted and jailed,” he said. 

A gravel road leading to Emazabekweni in Ixopo in KwaZulu-Natal, where Chief Justice Raymond Zondo grew up, on 15 March 2022. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Ixopo and the July looting

The elevation of Raymond Zondo to the head of South Africa’s apex court, the Constitutional Court, and, by extension, the head of the Judicial Service Commission, happened eight months after the July riots, which were characterised by mass looting and rioting in many parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Ixopo was not spared the violent looting, as people descended on the town centre, targeting and cleaning out retail supermarkets, liquor and food outlets, hardware, furniture and appliances stores, clothing outlets and other shops. The locals suffered for weeks and months afterwards, as they had to travel far and wide for basic services such as social grants and basic foods.

Ramaphosa’s appointment of Zondo as Chief Justice shows strategic smarts at last

Ironically, it was Zondo, a local Ixopo-born and -bred jurist, who had run out of patience with the dilly-dallying and failure of former president Jacob Zuma to appear at the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, and had taken him to the Constitutional Court for contempt. The court imposed a 15-month sentence and Zuma was hauled out of his Nkandla compound and taken to the Estcourt Correctional Centre to start his sentence.

Read in Daily Maverick: July unrest shattered our ‘rainbow nation’ illusion — now we must rebuild unity and diversity through acts of ubuntu

This sparked the riots, which continued for just more than a week.

Mandla Ngcobo (35), a prominent ANC leader in Ixopo, said the organisation in the area was very unhappy with the incarceration of Zuma and the role of Zondo in it.

“We knew that Zondo is a local man but we were not very happy about his conduct, especially when it comes to the treatment of Zuma, our leader,” said Ngcobo.

However, after several days of looting and mayhem Ngcobo said he and others joined taxi drivers, white farmers, Indian business owners, Ubuhlebezwe Local Municipality security guards and officials to defend the town from being completely burnt down by closing down all entrances to the town.

“This is all behind us now and we congratulate him [Zondo] for his appointment as the Chief Justice. We hope that he will make good decisions,” Ngcobo said.

Some people in the Ixopo town centre were elated by Zondo’s appointment and others didn’t really care and said it would not change their lives. There were even those who said they didn’t know who Zondo was and those who said they’d not heard about his appointment.

Nonkosi Xaba, a 28-year-old assistant at the local eatery, said she’d only seen Zondo on TV.

“I didn’t even know he was from here. We are happy for him now that he has been appointed. Perhaps his appointment will help in reducing crime. We are tired of being pick-pocketed by paras [criminal vagrants] They take our money, our phones and if you refuse they stab you,” she said.

Thembisile Dlamini, a hawker who sells fruit and vegetables near the local taxi rank, said she has not yet recovered from the July looting.

“They [looters] didn’t leave anything. They even looted the place where we store our stock. Our stalls were overturned and vandalised,” she said. “We are happy about his appointment. I don’t know what his role will be but we hope that he will reduce crime in our country.” 

Children from Emazabekweni Primary School, where Raymond Zondo attended his early school days, on 15 March 2022. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Zondo & Bux Educational Trust

Zondo once wept during the interviews for the position of the Deputy Chief Justice position while talking about how a generous Ixopo Muslim businessman, Suleman “Solly” Bux, helped his family with groceries and funds for his schooling and university fees so that he could qualify to be a lawyer. Bux owned the KwaMoosa, also known as AB Bazaars.

During the interview, Zondo said that without Bux’s timely intervention, he would not be where he is today. Upon finishing matric, Zondo and his mother approached Bux for fees to enrol at the University of Zululand. And when he completed his studies, Zondo returned to Bux to arrange repayment. Instead, Bux said Zondo must use the money to help other poor children with their studies.

In 2017, Zondo convinced Bux to form part of the Zondo & Bux Educational Trust, to assist disadvantaged schools with educational needs, thanking him for his role in helping Zondo and his family during their hour of need. Bux agreed and became the chairperson of the trust, with Zondo as his deputy.

Since then Zondo and his wife, Thembekile, together with the SA Muslim Charitable Trust and in partnership with the Zondo & Bux Educational Trust, have donated R1.5-million towards a borehole and three blocks of toilets, renovated the school windows and admin block, fixed all the leaks and changed the asbestos roof in two classes, and repainted Emazabekweni Primary School. This is the primary school in which Zondo was a learner. A library is also on the cards.

Solly Bux died on 17 January last year at a time when he enjoyed a close relationship with the Zondo family. Mohamed Bux – Solly’s 40-year-old son – said his father would have been very proud to see Zondo elevated to the highest judicial post in the country. The junior Bux has replaced his father in the Trust.

“Obviously, I was still too young when my dad made a pledge to support Zondo with groceries and educational funds. But my father spoke highly of him, even when he was still unknown. We are happy to be associated with him [Zondo]. We are still in touch with his family. My father would have been elated to see this happen if he was still alive.”

Mondli Dlamini, principal of Emazabekweni Primary School, said they are grateful for the assistance they receive from the Zondo family and the Trust.

“After he assumed his position as the chairperson of the State Capture, he was very hectic and we didn’t want to worry him too much. But he had promised more help for our school. The area of Emazabekweni is still a very poor place. He [Zondo] said his dream is to assist us so that our learners can have the same facilities and chance to succeed as those of well-off areas and schools. We are hopeful that this dream will be fulfilled,” he said. DM168


  1. He was born on 4 May 1960 in Emazabekweni village, outside Ixopo.
  2. He attended Emazabekweni Primary School. Because of his sharp intellect and grasp of school subjects, he was sent to St Mary’s Seminary, where he completed his matric.
  3. He enrolled at the University of Zululand to study law, and went on to the University of Natal, where he completed his LLB. He was admitted as an attorney in 1989 and practised as a partner in Mathe & Zondo Inc. Justice Zondo received a Master of Laws (LLM) in commercial law, an LLM in labour law and an LLM in patent law at the University of South Africa.
  4. He is married to Thembekile Zondo and they have four children.
  5. Former president Nelson Mandela appointed him as the acting judge of the Labour Court with effect from 1 February 1997. In November 1997, Mandela appointed Zondo as a judge of the Labour Court.
  6. In April/May 1999, he was appointed as a judge of the then Transvaal Provincial Division of the High Court (now the North Gauteng Division of the High Court) in Pretoria.
  7. In March 2011, Zondo was honoured by the KZN Legal Forum with an award for his contribution to human rights in South Africa.
  8. On 1 June 2017, Zondo was appointed as Deputy Chief Justice by former president Jacob Zuma. He succeeded Justice Dikgang Moseneke, whose term of office had expired.
  9. Zondo was nominated by former Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng to chair the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.
  10. In 2021, Zondo, as the chair of the State Capture Commission, took Zuma to the Constitutional Court after the former president refused to appear before the commission. The court sentenced Zuma to 15 months in jail for contempt of court.

On 10 March 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed Zondo as the new Chief Justice. He will assume this position on 1 April 2022. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    A fascinating account : especially in respect of the not allowing the person WHO confirmed his appointment as Deputy CJ, to not interfere with his need to uphold the calling of his appointment in respect of serving the interests of justice.

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