SUNDAY TIMES - Former pump attendant makes good on dream to help community with legal advice
Sunday Times Real Heroes By JAN BORNMAN, 2016-02-07 00:00:00.0

Former pump attendant makes good on dream to help community with legal advice

Lawyer David Masilela, seen above reading at his desk in his Pretoria office in preparation for a court appearance, 'believes in the spirit of giving'.

When he was growing up in Mapotla - then in the former homeland of KwaNdebele, now a part of Mpumalanga - David Masilela dreamt big.

He dreamt of getting a university degree - something neither his parents nor his 10 siblings had done. He dreamt of helping them and his community. And he dreamt of building a life that would allow him to better provide for his children.

But when Masilela matriculated, there was neither family money nor bursaries for university. "For some of us it's just not possible to go to university after school. I drew strength from my mom, who used to say: 'If you are surviving, there's wealth in store for you,'" he said.

Masilela, now 40, managed to get a job as a petrol attendant. "I always kept my eye on the goal. It was hard. Sometimes I just wanted to give up."

Instead, he remained determined and became a lawyer.

After completing his articles, he opened his own law firm in Pretoria and started doing pro bono work. "That is why I wanted to become a lawyer, to help people who are in trouble and can't afford help," he said.

"But to be honest, doing all of this pro bono work is really hurting the business. But I won't have it any other way. You can't turn away people. There's a reason they knock on my door and not the one next door."

His "moral obligation" to his family and the community means that he is willing to help any member of his community.

Masilela also recognised a need for information on issues such as marriage, divorce and maintenance, and whenever he returns to Mapotla he hosts workshops for residents.

For the past few years, Masilela has also been donating school shoes to children from his community, with pupils at five schools benefiting.

Bekezela Primary School principal Thammy Mahlangu and some pupils. The school received shoes from Masilela last year. Image: KEVIN SUTHERLAND

"I used my own Edgars account to go and buy school shoes. For me, there's nothing sweeter than getting a 'thank you' and seeing you made a difference in someone's life.

"Last year, I was approached by some colleagues and they suggested we set up a bursary scheme for a student from our village. But I'm taking it one step further. I will help and mentor two students to attend an FET [further education and training] college to become artisans," Masilela said.

"Not everyone is a university student. Society is still of the view that a degree is the best, but we must support FET colleges. We need to teach people that with artisanal skills you can open your own business and further help your community."

Thammy Mahlangu, the principal of Bekezela Primary School in Mapotla - one of the schools Masilela donated school shoes to last year - said the donations lifted the morale of his pupils.

"For those children who don't have school shoes, when they come to school and see they look different to their peers, it affects their morale. So David makes a big difference in their lives."

Mahlangu said Masilela, a former pupil of Bekezela, had also made donations to neighbouring schools.

"He told me he wanted to plough back into his own community and make a difference."

Neo Chokoe, the manager of's Pretoria office, said Masilela "goes the extra mile to help his clients".

She explained that all attorneys are obliged to perform a certain number of hours of pro bono work per year, but Masilela goes way beyond that.

"He sees all cases through to the end, and presents seminars to people in his community about issues.

"Beyond that, he believes in the spirit of giving and I know he has been donating school shoes to children who really need it and groceries to those families who really need it," said Chokoe.

Masilela said it was important to never give up on your dreams, a message to young people that he stresses in his motivational talks.

"I had hope that one day I was going to make it. I always kept reading in my free time to prepare myself. I kept saying to myself that if you do nothing, your mind is going to rust."

Masilela in his previous life as a petrol attendant Image: Supplied

Masilela said he had also always tried to associate with intelligent people.

After eight years of working as a petrol attendant, he felt he had saved enough money and was prepared for university.

"I applied to study law and I got accepted. It wasn't always easy keeping my mind on the goal. There were times when I wanted to buy a car and one of my brothers would say: 'You can't, you must go to school.'"

Masilela said being almost a decade older than most of his classmates had been a challenge.

"After eight years, I felt very left out. I was from a rural area, most of these kids were from Model C schools. I felt I made the wrong decision, but that also motivated me to really focus on my studies and work harder."

That determination helped Masilela to achieve six distinctions in his first semester.

After those results he was able to successfully apply for a National Student Financial Aid Scheme bursary to help him continue his studies into his second semester.

From there, he was on a direct path to achieving his dreams. The following year he was awarded a bursary and he made the dean's merit list.

"When I qualified as a lawyer, it was a dream come true. Nobody thought that someone from my background could make it. I now have a moral obligation to assist my family and I have a moral obligation to assist the community at large," said Masilela.




How you can help

Masilela asks that people contact him with donations such as school shoes and sanitary towels for his community's pupils.

He says he also needs more people with inspirational stories to come forward so that they can participate in his motivational speeches and assist the students he's helping with tertiary education.

Masilela can be reached on 072-402-7512.


UPDATE: Masilela says he has received dozens of calls since his story ran. "People have been calling me and telling me they appreciate my work," he said. Masilela said some people had expressed an interest to help him with donations. He said he was grateful for all the well wishers and people expressing an interest to help.