Thandeka Moyo-Ndlovu, Senior Reporter
“YOU will definitely lose cases because you will not be able to see the demeanour of witnesses.”
Mr Mehluli Ndlovu, a legal practitioner (44) from Njube suburb, in Bulawayo remembers how these words from his former boss pierced through his heart when he requested full access to the courts in 2009.
He had made legal history in Bulawayo, becoming the first visually impaired public prosecutor but still he was denied access to the courts as he could not “see” the credibility of witnesses.
The term “learned colleague” is all he longed to hear from fellow legal practitioners while prosecuting in court as he put in a lot of work to graduate with a law degree at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.
As a visually impaired student, he had to rely on friends who were kind enough to read reports and literature that he had to go through to become a legal practitioner.
Born in a family of seven children, four of whom have visual challenges, Mr Ndlovu always knew that he had to put up a fight to achieve his dream of becoming a legal practitioner.
His eldest brother, Ndabazabo who is practising law in the United Kingdom was all that he needed for inspiration.
“I went to St Bernard’s Primary before proceeding to John Tallach for Form 1-4 and then moved to Manana High School for A-level. I aced my exams and was enrolled at the UZ in 2000 law school where I studied until 2004,” he said
From Grade One, Mr Ndlovu who is popularly known as Mex in the court corridors had to rely on memory as there was no single textbook in all schools he went to for his needs.
The situation became worse when he chose law — a career path associated with lots of reading and research for one to thrive.
It called for a lot of discipline from his end and financial sacrifices as he used student grant money to photocopy material and buy tape recorders.
Mex was also blessed to have concerned classmates and friends at UZ who took time to read volumes and volumes of law reports for him so that he could be well prepared for exams.
His memory and passion for law was all that he had which pushed him through the four years at law school.
He remembers going through hundreds of cassettes with recorded audios from friends so that he could catch up with the rest of his classmates.
Mex also found solace in knowing that before him, three other visually impaired students had enrolled at UZ which meant easy access to the material they had prepared before he joined the school.
Before he completed his studies, school authorities provided him with a Braille machine which made it easy for him to capture notes during lectures.
In January 2005, he was registered as a legal practitioner at the High Court, marking the start of his treacherous journey into the legal field.
“I practised as a lawyer at Dube-Banda Nzarayapenga and Partners for a year and also at Advodate SKM Sibanda and Partners for a year before joining prosecution — which was the main reason why I studied law,” he said.
“So when I came to Bulawayo I was the first visually impaired legal practitioner. There were serious doubts about my ability and there was no literature in Braille nor equipment.
This negativity cascaded down to head office under the Ministry of Justice since the prosecuting department was still under the ministry.
“So I did my probation for about a year doing set down work and when the turn came for me to go to court, I approached my bosses to then take me to court so that I could litigate in open court.
They then said I needed approval from the Harare head office,” he said.
“I visited the head office and spoke to the director of public prosecution Mrs Florence Ziyambi in 2009. She clearly said my request could not be entertained because I would lose cases in court as I could not see the demeanour of the witnesses.
I then reminded her that the demeanour of witnesses does not win cases but facts combined with the application of the law,” he said.
His bosses were not convinced or willing to give Mex a chance to practice what he had trained for until he decided to engage his friend and former classmate, Mr Costar Dube from Dube and Associates.
Mex knew that letting go of the issue would derail him from achieving his childhood dream and also discourage aspiring legal practitioners with disabilities.
In 2011, Mrs Ziyambi, former Prosecutor General Mr Johannes Tomana, the department of prosecution and the Ministry of Justice were taken to the Labour Court as respondents to Mex’s case.
After two years, Mex won the case and the four respondents were ordered to desist from all forms of discriminatory tendencies and to provide him with court room.
They were also ordered to provide him and his assistant, Mr Gerald Phiri with the necessary equipment including Braille paper.
“We served our head office with the judgment but they indicated they were dissatisfied with the whole judgment stating that they would appeal. We decided to let them appeal and two years went by and there was no appeal,” said Mex.
“Costar then indicated that he would take them on for contempt of court and that is when I was finally issued with authority to prosecute in November 2017, nine years later after I joined the prosecution department.”
He said during the nine years while fighting for his rights, his superiors had tried to encourage him to join Legal Aid — which was seemingly a good opportunity but not what Mex went to law school for.
“I was not going to bow down, I wanted to do prosecution. At the end of 2012 I was persuaded to join the civil division as there were some people with visual impairment who were already there.
The opportunity for the imminent victor would have been lost had I agreed to drop the case and just join Legal Aid,” he added.
He said of the three visually impaired law students who studied before him at UZ, none was in prosecution then.
The first person who was once the district public prosecutor in Chegutu had died in 2008 and the second one found a job at UZ to train visually impaired students in information technologies.
Newly appointed High Court judge Justice Samuel Deme is the third person who gave Mex hope while he was at law school and all these were based in Harare by the time he was fighting for his rights.
Now five years into his dream job, Mex said he is happy that he fought for his rights, although it took years for him to be recognised like other legal practitioners.
“I enjoy doing trials and I am happy that five years after I was granted permission, I still enjoy and love my job. The most challenging part comes with comforting the complainants when we lose a case,” he said.
Outside court, Mex who is a married father of three children said he finds joy in reggae and gospel music which keeps him spiritually nourished.
“I am an ardent football follower who loves Highlanders Football Club and Arsenal. I also follow the Spanish League but am not as thorough compared to England and my all-time Highlanders,” he said.
“My mother is still alive and I am proud to say as parents, they had a vision for all the seven of us.
Unlike other people with disabilities (PWD) who are forced to rely on donations, our parents took us through school with their savings and supported us throughout although four of us had visual challenges.”
To members of the public Mex said: “The sky is the limit, where there is a will there’s a way and I don’t believe that there should not be anything given so much power to deny or frustrate a person out of their vision and goals.
As long as they are strong willed they can always do anything even with physical disabilities like some of us.” – @thamamoe.