A Ride From A Taxi Driver To Legal Eagle

Published 7 years ago
A Ride From A  Taxi Driver  To Legal Eagle

We wait 20 minutes before Siphile Buthelezi walks into his offices in Sandton sporting a tailored suit. On his table is a pile of documents and files of more than 20 clients of his law business. Not too bad for a young man who grew up in a squatter camp, in Clermont, in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.

“I start my day by going to the gym, then come to the office to check emails, draft legal opinions and, if it’s a day for litigation, I go to court. If I have board meetings I don’t even come to the office, and once I’m done I come and work until midnight,” says Buthelezi, Co-founder and Managing Director of Buthelezi Vilakazi Inc, a corporate and commercial law firm.

Buthelezi talks fast, with his hands, and has many stories to tell of his short but eventful 34 years of life.


“I’m the eldest of three children and we stayed in a one-roomed shack. So, we’d sleep on a mattress on the floor and my parents slept on the bed. So we would hear everything that happened at night,” he says.

His mother, a domestic worker, desperately wanted her son to be educated, and his father, a construction worker, walked him to school.

“My dad didn’t go to school at all. Even today, he can’t write; for him to write his name he needs to look at his ID but what I admire about him is he valued education,” says Buthelezi.

“My mom would come home, and it still pains me that she’d come with what was supposed to be her lunch at work, four slices of bread, and say this was supposed to be my lunch I brought it for you guys.”


According to Buthelezi, the environment made him want to be a gangster.

“In the squatter camp environment; you get exposed to different people and things, for example there’s a sheeben next door and sometimes you find that your understanding of a successful person is a thug who drives a nice car,” says Buthelezi.

Instead Buthelezi left school for music.

“Growing up I did music and danced for kwaito stars, Mzambiya and Msawawa. I enjoyed it but I knew I couldn’t do it for free,” he says.


This led to him buying a bus ticket to Johannesburg.

“I remember at the time a ticket was R100 (around $7.50), so my group and I came here for more gigs and at some point I wanted to be a full time musician.”

Johannesburg changed his mind.

“What was interesting is that when I got to meet more celebrities I realized their lives are not as glamourous as they make it out to be. There was a group called Tribe, one of the members asked us for R5 and for me that was a shock because I’d see these people on T.V. and then one of them was asking us for money. It was a wake-up call,” says Buthelezi.


Buthelezi went home and toiled at a construction company where his father worked. He used his money from music money to register at university. Luckily his mom’s employer also helped.

“My mom packed my bags and took me to the bus station, she gave me R20 and these are the words I’ll never forget, ‘my son this is all I have but there’s one thing I know, God will be with you’. She had tears of joy that I was starting at varsity but also because she couldn’t give me more,” says Buthelezi.

For Buthelezi, going to university was a dream. He knew he’d be better off at campus than at home.

“In the squatter camps people play music until the early hours of the morning. How are you going to study?”


It was four years of struggle, especially with English.

“Having studied at a public school, and not a model C school, there was a culture shock.  And I had to learn everything in English and some of the professors were foreigners who didn’t pronounce words the way they should have,” he says.

As a result, he failed his first test in constitutional law with just 8%. It took him a few months for his grades to improve. Meanwhile the study loan didn’t cover everything.

“I didn’t have money to buy clothes, food and books. I also got a bursary from Cecil Reynolds charity bursary for outstanding academic performer which covered part of my fees,” says Buthelezi.


In his second year, Buthelezi had a plan up his sleeve.

“My plan was to take part of the [student loan] money, get a driver’s license and a professional driving permit. I approached one of the taxi owners; I asked him if he could give me a chance to drive on weekends. I put it in a way that I’d be relieving drivers then I started driving from Friday ‘til Monday. The owner started rotating his drivers and one driver would be off on certain weekends and I’d take over, they’d even bring the taxi to me on campus.”

“In my first load there’s a lady whom I won’t forget, a classmate, when I got into the taxi, she said ‘are we ever going to get where we’re going’.” Buthelezi shakes his heads and grins.

He’d make about $20 a day. His fellow drivers called him Sfundiswa – loosely translated: the learned one.

“I’d carry my books to the rank, and while waiting for my load I would take it out and study and when the taxi is full I’d put it away and drive off to my destination,” he says.

Hardship was just around the corner. It hurt so much when a girlfriend dumped him that he wanted to kill himself.

“I can tell you now I’ve never been heart broken by anyone but that lady. I loved her with all my heart, I wrote her name on each and every book I had.”

Buthelezi met his wife Slindile, a doctor, on Facebook through a friend and realized that their families knew each other.

The years of struggle paid off – a law degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Fresh out of university, Buthelezi was hired as a candidate attorney at Bowman Gilfillan, a large firm based in Johannesburg.

“In my first year of doing articles I paid off the study loan, I did not wait to build a home for my parents, or take care of myself because I knew the difference it made in my life. I knew my first obligation was to think of another Siphile who needs the loan to study,” says Buthelezi.

He spent a year in New York working for Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, a law firm where he worked in the Credit and Capital Markets Departments and at Morgan Stanley, an investment bank.

Later, he built his family a five-roomed house.

In 2015, he started Buthelezi Vilakazi Inc, with Amanda Vilakazi, the company’s Head of Litigation and Dispute Resolution. It has another office in Umhlanga Ridge, in Durban.

“I wanted to do other things, not just law, but get into business that I couldn’t do at the time and to also serve our government in audit committees.”

Buthelezi is also the Co-Founder at RadioVybe, a social media app; Non-Executive Director at South African Airways (SAA); Board Chair at SAA Technical, and Deputy Chair at KZN Growth Fund.

“As a boss, I expect the best from anyone who works for the firm. I expect the best documents to go out to clients.  Clients of the firm are my clients and anyone who works for me needs to treat me as their client. They need to impress me as I impress my clients,” says Buthelezi.

“Never even once undermine any type of work, another person would have said no to taxi driving. Many young people say no to doing odd jobs. In those jobs you meet interesting people; when they see you’re focused, they open doors for you. Opportunities given, grab them with both hands, run and never look back.”

Unlike his first taxi passengers, Buthelezi is certain he will get where he is going.