Thandiwe Nhlapho was born in a small township in the Vaal Triangle, Evaton North. She and her two siblings lived with their mother after their parents divorced. With this background, Thandiwe had to work extra hard and persevere to succeed against all odds and in the midst of adversity.

Despite the challenges, Thandiwe was able to succeed.

Transform SA spoke to Thandiwe about her career and life journey.

  1. Please describe your history and professional development. What drove you to choose this route? But what huge setback occurred?

Growing up, there were no professional role models around me. So, I was unsure what I would study after high school. Studying further seemed a little ambitious and unattainable given that I did not know anyone who studied beyond high school in my immediate family and community. However, I was determined to break the cycle and be inspirational to the youth, particularly in my community which was and still is riddled with crime, unemployment and poverty. I was a top student in my matric year at my school and the Sedibeng department of education for outstanding results which earned me a scholarship which would cover a quarter of my tuition fees in university.

Although I had excellent grades in mathematics and sciences, I was passionate about social justice. Without proper guidance, exposure and information, I believed it would make sense to study a course in the sciences faculty despite my passion – I chose a Bachelor of Sciences in Geology at Witwatersrand University and enrolled for a short period before I changed my degree to a Bachelor of Laws about a month later. I did well and made the Dean’s List, at this point I never looked back. I was still fascinated by how the earth formed, its structure and composition especially mineral resources. Interestingly today most of the clients I provide legal services to are in the mining sector – speak of fate!

Although I have worked in large and global law firms, I find opportunities to provide legal services on a pro bono basis to entrepreneurs and small medium and micro enterprises who cannot afford legal services. I also sit on the board of directors of Youth Health Africa which focuses on providing comprehensive youth work experience, demand creation and food security programmes. It is quite heart-warming to be able to use my experience and skill set in this manner.

I do not consider negative life events as “setbacks”, yes, I have been unfortunate a few times – I perceive these life events as lessons learned.

2.Describe your present work in general and your position within Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.

I am a senior associate in the corporate and commercial practice. I have also been recently selected from a number of African lawyers to complete a 3-month secondment with Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in London through the International Lawyers for Africa’s flagship programme.

I specialize in (i) mergers and acquisitions, (ii) corporate governance, (iii) equity capital markets and (iv) general company law.

I advise listed and unlisted clients in the local and international sphere in several industries and sectors including, telecommunications, liquid fuels, information technology, media, minerals and energy.

3.What is the most common misunderstanding regarding your job, and how do you often address it?

“Lawyers are liars”! Contrary to popular belief, working in the legal profession requires integrity and honesty of the highest order. The profession is regulated by the Legal Practice Council. Therefore, one runs the risk of being struck off from the attorney’s roll if they are no longer “fit and proper”. This is something we learn and understand early on in our career and forms a part of us thereafter – of course, there are outliers.

4.Can you tell us about a notable matter / transaction you have worked on recently?

One of the public M&A transactions I enjoyed working on and played a lead role on recently, was the sale of shares by Etion to Altron in terms of which, Etion sold 100% of its shares in its subsidiary, Law Trusted Third Party Services (Lawtrust) for a consideration of R245 million (subject to the potential adjustment relating Law trust’s net debt and working capital as at the effective date).

It was fascinating to be part of the transaction from the initial briefing, drafting and negotiating the share purchase agreement, commenting on SENS announcements, assisting with regulatory approvals and ultimately closing the deal as part of unlocking shareholder value.

5. What are your thoughts on the introduction of AI and do you consider it a threat?

I do not consider AI as a threat at all instead, I am embracing it. AI is bringing a rapid change in technology, industries, and societal patterns and processes which is necessary. This means professionals can focus on critical aspects of their work, such as analyzing data instead of gathering it – this saves time and money for individuals and businesses. However, AI must be used when necessary and with caution, as it does not replace human intelligence as seen in the recent case in New York.

6. Describe what change means to you in the light of South Africa’s racial past and how you believe the country should approach it.

For me, it starts with recognising past injustices and inequities and understanding how these issues continue to affect the country and people’s lives. Only then can the country make the necessary changes fairly and equitably to level the playing field. In addition, I believe that all South Africans should take it upon themselves to create environments or spaces that are diverse and inclusive not only from a racial perspective but also in other aspects such as disability, gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background.  

7. Would you encourage young ladies to pursue a career in law?

Absolutely, particularly in corporate law. I believe the profession would benefit greatly with more women in senior and leadership roles either as judges, senior counsel, managing directors or heads legal departments in academia, practice and in-house. They must be alive to the fact that the profession is quite demanding in respect the complexity, volume of work and timelines on transactions but it is intellectually stimulating and satisfying.   

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