Silindile Buthelezi: The "small-town girl" smashing finance law's glass ceiling

19 April 2017 | Story by Chido Mbambe. Photo by Robyn Walker.
Silindile Buthelezi, lecturer in the Department of Commercial Law, hopes one day to use her expertise to advise government on regulatory issues around banking and finance.
Silindile Buthelezi, lecturer in the Department of Commercial Law, hopes one day to use her expertise to advise government on regulatory issues around banking and finance.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is a programme that was created in 2014 by former US president Barack Obama and is named after former South African president Nelson Mandela.

The highly prestigious and sought-after fellowship is for under 35s from sub-Saharan Africa who have been identified as future leaders within their respective industries in their countries. They are placed in various academic institutions across the USA for six weeks of intensive academic and leadership training.

“It’s a dream come true. I’ve always been an ambitious person, so these opportunities are not really things that are a matter of happenstance, they’re things that have been in my heart,” says Silindile Buthelezi, UCT lecturer and one of this year’s Mandela Washington fellows.

She has been placed at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, Georgia.

“I’m looking forward to the academic training and developing my leadership skills, but I am also looking forward to the networking opportunities so that I can bring back whatever I learn to develop South Africa, at least in my field of interest – banking and finance law,” she says.

Buthelezi knew about the fellowship since its inception but never felt she was quite qualified enough to apply.

“I’d always put off applying because I didn’t think I was Mandela Washington material.”

But after encouragement from friends, she mustered up the courage.

“I was very surprised when I found out that I had been selected and one thing I can take out of this experience is that even when you think you’re in doubt of whether you are good enough, the best thing to do is just try,” says Buthelezi.

She finds that her biggest challenge in her field is being a young black woman and emerging academic.

“Banking law is a very male-dominated industry … one of my main challenges right now is gaining visibility when it comes to my research and having people actually take what I have to say seriously,” she says.

“I have already received an opportunity to present my ideas on the reform of South Africa’s banking and financial sector regulation at an international conference, which was held at the University of Cambridge in 2016. I also recently appeared on the SABC news television programme Interface as part of the panel of experts discussing South Africa’s Twin Peaks banking and financial sector reforms. These have been great opportunities as they are going to give me credibility. And that’s what I need at this stage,” says Buthelezi.

Don’t discount yourself


Buthelezi describes herself as a small-town girl who has made it big in life.

“The main motivation I can give my students is to not discount yourself before you’ve even entered the game.

“At the time I applied I had doubts as to whether I would get the position but I applied anyway and here I am ... The worst that could happen is that you’ll get a no, and if it’s a no you’ll just move on. But also you never know, it could actually be a yes then you’ll be living your dreams.”

Her love for debating in high school led to her career choice in law. She always wanted to make a difference, even though at the time she didn’t exactly know what she wanted to specialise in.

“I knew that being a lawyer would mean that you get an opportunity to make a difference,” explains Buthelezi.

She holds an LLB and an LLM in business law from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She completed her articles of clerkship at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr and was admitted as an attorney in the High Court of South Africa in 2012. Soon thereafter she worked as a law researcher for the judges at the Western Cape High Court prior to joining the Faculty of Law at UCT.

She says that working at UCT has opened up many opportunities for her. Within six months of joining the faculty, the executives in her department decided to send her to study her second LLM, in international banking and finance law, at University College London ­– she will be graduating with a merit in July.

“I finally got to specialise in my area of interest,” says Buthelezi.

A passion for social justice


Her research interests are in general corporate and commercial law, banking and financial markets regulation, corporate insolvency and restructuring, and international trade law. However, she also has a passion for social justice issues relating to violence against women and children.

“It actually only started when I worked as a researcher at the Western Cape High Court ... I wasn’t really interested in public law, but when you work as a researcher, you don’t get to choose the type of cases you work on. When a judge needs you, a judge needs you,” says Buthelezi.

Many of the criminal law cases that she worked on involved violence. And the victims were always women and girls.

“When you’re helping the judges with the research, you’re also looking at the evidence and it is then that you see the severity of the violence and it really just breaks your heart.

“I thought how can I help? So I can do that through research,” she says.

Her article “Human trafficking and new legal framework in South Africa: Intervention needed for the law to reach vulnerable girls and women” was published in the Agenda Feminist Journal in 2015.

“That was born out of the research I had actually done for a judge,” she explains.

Empowering the youth


Aside from her academic work, Buthelezi tries to get involved in as many youth empowerment projects as she can, and she is involved with various outreach programmes as well.

“I try [to] inspire the youth by going out to speak to the youth. For instance I help out at Emagqabini Education Academy in Khayelitsha, and I have previously helped out at Junior Achievement South Africa Western Cape. Again it’s just speaking to young people who honestly don’t have role models in their communities who look like them and are achieving great things,” she says.

“I can relate to that. I may not have grown up in Khayelitsha, but I grew up in a small town and I understand to a certain extent what it means not to have people who are achieving great things within your own community.”

She hopes to be able to introduce banking law as a module at the UCT Faculty of Law.

“We’re a leading institution but we don’t offer what is probably one of the most sought-after areas of law,” she says.

“One of my dreams is for UCT have a centre for banking and finance … I think it would take us really far as an institution. So that’s actually my major long-term goal,” she says.

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