Wits alumnus Peter Tshisevhe’s story needs to be told. It is a story of hard work, determination, intellect and triumph. Numerous Wits alumni and academics play a part in this story, which offers the promise of a bold new South African future of which Wits can be proud.
BProc in 1995, LLB in 1997 and MLaw in 1999, Certificate Course in Prospecting and Mining in 2004 and Postgraduate Diploma in Company Law in 2012, all at Wits.
Our story begins in the village of Tshakhuma in rural Venda in the mid-1980s, where a 16-year-old boy named Peter Tshisevhe tries on his first pair of shoes. Though his parents both work hard – his father is a farm worker and his mother a domestic worker – they have never been able to afford even basic necessities.
Peter has also worked on farms since the age of 11, picking litchis and mangos at harvest time to make a bit of money to help his parents, while at the same time diligently attending school.
This poverty shall pass
What sets him apart is his inbuilt determination to succeed. Despite the poverty around him he constantly tells himself: “This poverty shall pass. I am not going to live like this.”
He has no educational advantages – his junior primary school is taught under a tree. Despite this he does well and manages to secure a bursary from the Lutheran Scholarship Fund for his last two years of high school. From these funds he is able to buy his first pair of shoes.
He completes his matric and heads for Joburg in 1986 in those selfsame shoes.
A cleaner and packer for Pick n Pay
Tshisevhe picks up the tale. “Having found my way to Joburg I moved in with my brother Robert, who had a shack in Dobsonville in Soweto. I immediately started looking for a job and managed to find one at Pick n Pay in Brixton as a cleaner and packer in the fruit and vegetable department.”
Hard working, bright and capable, he was soon promoted to cashier by the store manager, Chris Reed, who encouraged him to study further.
Determined to improve his education and achieve a university entrance matric, which he did not get in Venda, Tshisevhe explored his options:
“I started asking about schools in the area and was directed to a private school in Fordsburg that was sponsored by the British government to counter the educational disadvantage of learners in the 1985/6 uprisings.
“I used the money I had saved from working at Pick n Pay to attend this school. It was run by a Mrs Mosala, who was a disciplinarian and very strict, which was good because it helped me to do well even though I was working and studying at the same time.”
Meeting Judge Cameron
During this time he met Edwin Cameron, who lived in Brixton and did his grocery shopping at the Pick n Pay where Tshisevhe worked.
“One day he asked me why I wasn’t at school. I replied that I was indeed at school doing my matric, and that I had been conditionally accepted to study at Wits University, pending my results,” Tshisevhe recalls.
“He was such a humble man and told me he was lecturing law at Wits and encouraged me to study. As it turned out he lectured me in Labour Law,” continues Tshisevhe, who not only got the university pass he required but also a bursary from the British Council.
Wits and Wits alone
Tshisevhe knew there was but one university he wanted to attend, and that was Wits, where he enrolled at the age of 23.
“I’d first learnt about Wits from my academic rival in primary school, Aifheli Netshivhodza, who inspired me to achieve and who is now an architect. He attended a top science and maths school in Venda from Grade 8, where they were exposed to the leading universities. He brought home reading material about Wits and I fell in love with it.
“Wits had the top law school and it attracted top students, and that is where I wanted to be. I have always wanted to associate with people who inspire me and are doing better than me so that I can improve myself.”
Helen Suzman’s fight for justice
Of particular inspiration to Tshisevhe was the fearless fight for justice of Wits alumna Helen Suzman. A member of parliament at the time, in 1987 she took on a judge who had ruled on a case from the farming district where Tshisevhe had worked as a young boy.
In this case the Johannesburg Bar in 1989 took the rare step of formally condemning Justice JJ Strydom’s decision that let a farmer off extremely lightly after he killed a labourer who had accidentally run over his dogs.
The farmer, Jacobus Vorster, and his friend, Petrus Leonard, were convicted of killing labourer Eric Sambo in 1987 after they tied him to a tree and took turns beating him to death over two days. Vorster was found guilty of culpable homicide and Leonard of assault. Neither went to jail; they were merely fined a few hundred rand.
Suzman bravely lobbied for Justice Strydom’s impeachment for what she called an “outrageous miscarriage of justice”. It did not happen but it certainly embarrassed the National Party government as the ruling was condemned worldwide.
“The case struck a deep chord in me about why some people’s lives are not valued at all and why there is such prejudice in our society,” says Tshisevhe. “It is not just between black and white, it is between all sorts of groups and cultures. One example is that we were treated as outcasts in our village in Venda simply because my Mom and Dad were from different cultures: my Mom is Zulu and my Dad is Venda.”
Competition for limited resources
At the heart of prejudice, Tshisevhe believes, is competition for limited resources. “People form tribes or groups or nations to compete for limited resources and they victimise or ostracise others to keep them from benefiting from those resources.
“As South Africans we need to see ourselves as one people, men and women, and to learn to share our resources. But this is not happening because there is still so much inequality and mistrust.”
He believes that each one of us needs to work really hard at integrating our society. “There are so many prejudices we still need to overcome before we see each other as fellow human beings.”
Enrolling at Wits
Enrolling at Wits in 1990 was “a liberating experience” for him on many levels. The politics of the time were changing the course of people’s lives but on a personal level he loved having his own room and space at Ernest Oppenheimer Hall (EOH).
“It was all very new and foreign to me and I had no idea how anything worked. I did not even realise that the residence provided meals and ablution facilities,” he says.
For the first week he would travel to Soweto to wash and he bought his own groceries to make himself meals.
Learning how residence works
“Fortunately at the end of that week, while I was walking up Jan Smuts Avenue carrying my groceries, I bumped into a friend, Matodzi Mukwevho, who was from the same village as me and who was in his final year BCom at Wits. He, like me, grew up very poor but he did exceptionally well academically and is now a Chartered Accountant.
“Matodzi asked me why I had packets of groceries and I told him. That is when I learnt how the residence accommodation works.”
A powerful presence, with natural charm and leadership qualities, Tshisevhe made his mark on the predominantly white residence, and in his third year at Wits he was elected Chair of the EOH House Committee in 1992, becoming the first black person to assume the role.
A very tense time
“It was racially and politically a very tense time,” he recalls. “Mandela had been released from jail two years earlier; black people felt the victory while most white people were very scared.”
As Chair of the House Committee he needed to be highly sensitive to the mood in residence and to use his strong people skills to build bridges and unify the members. “I kept the peace through honest engagement and encouraging people to think twice about what they were saying or doing – whether it was talking loudly in the corridors when others were trying to concentrate on their studies, or having heated political arguments.”
I loved that car
Throughout his studies he continued working part-time at Pick n Pay as he was supporting his parents and siblings. He also managed to buy his first car at the age of 25. “I loved that car, a grey Toyota Corolla 1.6,” he smiles.
He also loved his little res room – P24. “Despite being a bit dark and cold in winter, it was my home and refuge for several years, and hence I was reluctant to move to the larger, far more comfortable room assigned to me when I became Chair.”
Wits Law Clinic
After completing his BProc he worked at the Wits Law Clinic in 1996 under the supervision of Professor Peter Jordi.
Every student and candidate attorney dreaded working with Prof Jordi as his standards were impossibly high and he demanded meticulous attention to detail. Tshisevhe was the exception. He appreciated Prof Jordi’s standards and they got on extremely well and worked closely together, winning several cases against the police for brutality and torture.
“Attention to detail and proper preparation wins cases, the lack of it loses cases,” says Tshisevhe, who subsequently joined Werksmans Attorneys in 1997 to pursue his interest in corporate and commercial law.
Brilliant Wits alumni mentors
“I worked under Wits alumnus David Hertz, who was a brilliant mentor and teacher, as was the late Tony Behrman, a Senior Partner at Werksmans.”
In 2000 Tshisevhe moved to Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs (ENS), Africa’s largest corporate and commercial law firm, where he was mentored again by Wits alumni – ENSafrica Chair Michael Katz and Director Stephen Lewis – both of whom he greatly admires.
Such was Tshisevhe’s performance that one year later he was promoted to Director, skipping the Senior Associate level, the first person in the history of the firm to achieve this.
From 2003 until 2011 he worked at the highest professional echelon, advising on some of South Africa’s largest ever mergers and acquisitions.
To give back to “the institution that gave me the tools to be a professional” he lectured Commercial Law part time at Wits for 12 years. “Assisting young students reach their full potential means everything to me,” he explains.
In 2011 Tshisevhe and two equally senior commercial lawyers, Sandanathi Gwina and Matodzi Ratshimbilani, decided to go it alone and created Tshisevhe Gwina Ratshimbilani Incorporated (TGR) – the largest Level 1 BEE commercial law firm in South Africa, with offices in Sandhurst.
“I had a really good experience at ENS but the time had come to create something of our own,” Tshisevhe explains. “It’s the first time in the history of South Africa that professionals from large firms have got together and created a commercial law firm that is truly representative of the racial demographic in our country.”
In three years TGR has grown from three to 26 professionals, including ENS’s former Financial Director, Bruce Schubach, a Wits Business School and Law graduate, who joined TGR a year ago as the CEO.
The basis of TGR’s rapid success is that business law excites all those who work here.
Black people needed to get into business
“I noted that a lot of black people in South Africa were into the human rights law space but for me the uncharted territory was business rights law because black people needed – and continue to need – to get into business.”
From buy-backs of shares to massive cross-border transactions, Tshisevhe transacts in the billions.
“We pride ourselves on working with professionals who are absolute specialists in their field, irrespective of their colour, gender or culture.”
He adds that “window dressing or doing favours for connections” is not tolerated. “There is far too much of this in our country’s corporate world and it creates unhealthy dependencies instead of transformational environments.”
Now 43, Tshisevhe has a life many universes from that Wits student in P24 or that Venda boy in his first pair of shoes. But he’s not blasé or boastful. He does not arch his back in his leather chair and spout egotistical opinions. Quite the opposite: there’s light and honesty in his eyes and he’s energetic, fast-paced and engaging.
Highly focused on his work and on building the company, Tshisevhe does not find it easy to balance his professional and home life.
“I try not to have any meetings on weekends. I also take our daughter to and from school every day. I have a rule not to take phone calls during this time. To make up time I get up at 04:00.”
His wife Simone Magardie is also a lawyer with her own law firm in Pretoria, Damons, Magardie Richardson (DMR).
They live in Hyde Park and have a six-year-old daughter, Rendani, at Roedean School – one of Joburg’s top private schools – and a baby boy, Thendo.
“Naturally we want to give our children every educational opportunity possible,” Tshisevhe says.
Decency, ubuntu and hard work
He also wants to give his parents everything they never had, including the beautiful home he built for them in their home village in Venda. “I am really grateful to my mother and father because they instilled in me three basic values that have served me my whole life: they taught me about decency, ubuntu and hard work.
“I am equally grateful to all the people who have helped, encouraged and inspired me in my life, including Saul and Obed Raphalalani, who went out of their way to get me the Lutheran Church bursary while I was in high school. I can never thank them enough,” says Tshisevhe, who contributes financially to educating rural learners and takes care of 10 destitute but gifted learners from his former schools in Tshakhuma.
And so it is that his remarkable life has come full circle and his childhood mantra has come true: the poverty did pass, and while the journey has been long and hard, the young boy who grew up without shoes has never looked back.