From an aspiring prosecutor in a rural magistrate’s court to becoming a senior state advocate, and now serving as the Director of Public Prosecutions in KwaZulu-Natal, this is the remarkable journey of Advocate Elaine Zungu.
Zungu was appointed to the helm of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in the province in 2019 by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Justice is often depicted as a woman, blindfolded, balancing a pair of scales. Yet, in a country with staggering statistics of gender-based violence (GBV), femicide and rape – it is women who are in need of justice.
Ramaphosa says the scourge of GBV should be regarded as a man’s problem:
Zungu says that ensuring that the wheels of justice turn, is not a job but her passion.
“You know there are many people out there that are broken, who are hurting, that need our assistance. So the issue of listening and consulting with your victim and even if you are not going to enroll a case; I always at least talk to the victim and make them understand why a certain matter cannot be enrolled. It may be a lack of evidence. You know there are many causes or reasons, why a certain decision has to be made. But when I understand as a person, then I feel empowered,” explains Zungu.
Growing up in the town of Melmoth in KwaZulu-Natal, Zungu first considered dentistry as a career path.
“When I finished school in my matric year, I actually wanted to become a dentist but due to my points system, I didn’t make it. So my second choice was law. And it was all because of a series that used to be called LA Law on TV. I was fascinated by what used to go on in that programme, not realising that that system is totally different from the South African system, the court system. You know the jury and everything is exaggerated and I really thought wow, I would love this, walking around, pointing a chart. Unfortunately, that was not the case in South Africa. But once I started studying law, I started to enjoy the subject matter. And then I thought, you know what, this is my career,” Zungu elaborates.
Zungu’s career in public prosecution started in the year 2000, going back to her rural roots as a prosecutor in the Eshowe Magistrate’s Court. She says one case made an indelible mark on her.
“It was a matter that was related to SASSA and there was a group of women who were operating and they called themselves the ambulance group and they were taking the ghost money. You remember there were issues about people making applications for grants for children that were not in existence. That case I will never forget. To me it was such a great success in that we were able to eradicate a group of people who were getting money that was not due to them whereas there were people who were really supposed to be getting that money. So I think at that stage that you know what, you can do this,” says Zungu.
Driven by a determination to succeed, Zungu says she buried herself in her work, gaining experience with each case. Her hard work would eventually pay off.
“Within like nine, 10 months, I was given an opportunity of being a regional court prosecutor. From a regional court prosecutor, I then came up to the DPP offices as a state advocate. From a state advocate, I became a senior state advocate. From a senior state advocate, I became a deputy director of public prosecutions. I then became a chief prosecutor. And then suddenly I was requested to act as a DPP. And then finally I was appointed as the DPP for KZN. So it has been a long journey. It has been a lot of work,” says Zungu.
While Zungu’s accomplishments have been many, she says she also faced disappointments. She says it is important to never allow those setbacks to keep you from pursuing your passion.
“There have been failures, I don’t want to sit here and say there have not been failures. For example, when I applied to be a senior state advocate, I didn’t get it the first time. I went for I think it was two interviews before I finally got the post. But you need to sell yourself. You need to work hard. You need to show your skills and your knowledge. Take on anything that you are given and work on it and ask your colleagues for assistance,” explains Zungu.
Zungu says the key to growing in one’s career is being able to ask for help when you need it. She says she is constantly learning from her colleagues, and equally spends hours reading and keeping up to date.
“I was not one who dealt with a lot of corruption matters while I was still in the lower courts because we deal with the ordinary fraud cases. But when I became a DPP, I was suddenly faced with these difficult corruption cases and the laws that were applicable with regard to corruption charges. It meant one sitting down and basically like taking yourself through a university because of reading up in racketeering charges, all these acts I had to acquaint myself with. But one thing I did not lose focus on, was saying colleagues, take me through this here and assist me with it because I am not understanding. And engaging with my colleagues. Never be afraid to engage and never tell yourself you know it all.,” adds Zungu.
Inspiring young women
As director of public prosecutions in the province, Zungu has inspired many young women who dream of a career in law. However, asked about being a role model, Zungu modestly says:
“You know I have never seen myself as a role model. When people look up to you, it’s nice, it’s good. But it’s not about looking up, the evidence must speak to what you want to achieve. I cannot be about the status of the job title that you hold. Some people can go into a profession not realising that this comes with a lot of trauma. This comes with a lot of emotions. It is not just about a job title, being called an advocate. But there is a lot of responsibility, which is extra and beyond the job title which you hold within the society.”
Zungu is determined to ensure cases of gender-based violence and corruption are given priority in the province. However, amid her substantive role as DPP, Zungu believes she also has a responsibility toward women coming up in the ranks.
“I have a responsibility to bring other women up. I have a responsibility to encourage other people. I have a responsibility to hold them by their hand and say we can make it happen. When anyone is failing, instead of going around and talking badly, hold their hand and say listen, let us go through this process. It’s not a burden, it’s a responsibility that comes with the position that I am holding. We need to show women that it can be done.”
As Zungu continues her work, there is one thing she is sure of: “I am grateful that I didn’t do dentistry at the end of it all.”