09 Nov
Chuma Vabaza

Wise words from Garlicke & Bousfield’s Chuma Vabaza

Ex nihilo nihil fit – that’s what I live by.” I smiled politely – not sure whether the earnest expression on the face before me was expecting a reply, or whether I should admit that I did not actually know what he was saying. Approaching an interview with G&B’s newly appointed director, Chuma Vabaza, I certainly did not expect to have Latin thrown at me; neither did the surprises end there.

On hearing that he had been educated at Selborne College in the Eastern Cape, I might have been forgiven for assuming that I was going to meet a young professional who had enjoyed a privileged upbringing – but therein lay a further surprise.

Only child to a single mom, Chuma was born in the township of Duncan Village in East London in 1986. Wanting a better life for her only child, his mother courageously made the decision to move to King William’s Town where she started a clothing design business and sent Chuma to Shornville Primary School.

Chuma speaks fondly of the school that he believes was responsible for instilling in him a love for English and History and also a love for sport – adding that he played rugby, cricket, soccer and participated in athletics. When pressed further, he admitted that he was head boy of the school in Grade 7.

As a youngster attending Shornville, Chuma explained how from the age of six he would catch a taxi to school on his own. “I don’t remember being scared,” Chuma reflected, “the adults in the taxi took care of youngsters like me and the strong sense of community that existed ensured nothing bad ever happened.”

Chuma sheepishly admitted that when his mother decided to send him to Selborne College he was astonished, simply because he had never even heard of the school. He never questioned his forward-thinking mother for a second, and was not deterred by the fact that his friends at Shornville laughed when he told them he was applying to Selborne College.

He describes being overwhelmed when he saw Selborne for the first time, and was astonished at how green the grass was! “I picked a few blades of the grass and thought to myself ‘Do I even have a chance here?’” Chuma was enrolled as a boarder at Selborne and remembers feeling excited by the prospect of meeting new friends – to such a degree that he could not sleep on the eve of his first day.

For Chuma, high school was about the fun of pillow fights in the dorm after “lights out”, it was about cricket and rugby, teamwork, lasting friendships, and nurturing his Christian faith. Academically he excelled, electing to study Latin in Grade 8 and 9 before the Department of Education discontinued it. Chuma singles out Mr Miller, his Under 14C rugby coach, who had such belief in his team that they too believed they could be better than they were, many of them moving to the A team simply because of Miller’s encouragement and inspiration.

Self-belief was first instilled in Chuma by his mother whose financial sacrifices and vision for her son provided Chuma with the education he received and culminated in him graduating with a law degree from the University of KZN, Pietermaritzburg in 2008. “Being a lawyer is pretty much the only professional career I’ve ever considered,” says Chuma, “probably influenced by the fact that there were a few lawyers in my family.” This is a bit of an understatement from the up-and-coming young lawyer when you consider that his great-grandfather was Gamaliel Vabaza – a man who was educated alongside Nelson Mandela at Clarkebury and Fort Hare (incubators to some of the greatest African scholars the continent has ever known) and who was one of the first black lawyers to be admitted.

Chuma practised as an attorney in Pietermaritzburg until 2016, when he was appointed as a senior legal advisor at the KwaZulu-Natal branch of the Motor Industry Bargaining Council where he was responsible for managing the enforcement of the industry’s collective agreement. But he missed the challenges of legal practice and joined Garlicke & Bousfield as a Senior Associate in the Employment Law Department in 2017.

Asked how he rose to the ranks of director so quickly, he humbly shrugs and says, “I have been fortunate in my life. Ex nihilo nihil fit – that’s what I live by.” Turns out that literally means “nothing comes from nothing” – in Chuma’s case he says he was brought up to believe from a young age that it is what we make out of whatever we have been given, not what we have been given, that distinguishes us from each other.

A typical role model for young South Africans himself, Chuma says the people he most admires are Nelson Mandela and Michael Jackson. “Mr Mandela was the ultimate statesman – it would have been great to have had a conversation with him. As for Michael Jackson, well he was simply the greatest entertainer of all time!” Clearly there are also two inspiring women in Chuma’s life – his mother and his German wife, Frauke. When it was time to propose, Chuma travelled to Nordhorn, a small town in Germany, where he met, for the first time, his future in-laws. When asked whether he was nervous, Chuma replied, “Why would I be? I was excited!”

The couple married in Germany in an old stone church with stained-glass windows, Chuma’s mother having left South Africa for the first time in her life to witness her precious son’s marriage. “I was worried my mom would get lost in Dubai,” Chuma laughs, “but she made it, as did two of my Selborne College friends.”

In his free time Chuma enjoys playing golf and spending time with Frauke and their beautiful sons. “A legal career can be all-consuming and finding balance is extremely important,” he says.

Looking forward, he says, “I am proud to be part of the G&B history, which now spans more than 150 years, and I look forward to being part of its future. There is something unique about joining a firm with such a distinguished history and I hope to make my mark amongst those who have journeyed before me.”

As the interview draws to a close, I am left with the inescapable conclusion that when Chuma’s hero, the late Nelson Mandela, said “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up”, he could well have been describing the young attorney I had just met.

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