Stefanie de Saude-Darbandi is one of South Africa’s foremost immigration law experts. She works tirelessly to promote access to justice for those on the margins of society, looking to make South Africa their new home.
Please give a brief overview of your journey thus far.
I studied part-time and worked full-time in order to pay for my studies. On one occasion I had three different jobs at the same time so that I could make enough money to cover my tuition fees.
When I started my articles, my eldest daughter (I was a single mother at the time) was not even a year old. I remember studying for my board exams with a sick infant on my chest because I had no one to look after her at the time.
During my articles, I worked long hours, all week including most weekends. I even brought my daughter to the office with me after hours where she would sleep on the floor under my desk (I made a little bed for her). My daughter got incredibly sick after her first birthday, resulting in me spending a week in hospital. I was at her side, but whenever she napped, I worked. Most evenings, I worked from about 9 pm until 3 am.
Because of my work ethic, I was offered a partnership position on the day I qualified as an attorney and since then I have had two more children. My children are now eight, three and one, respectively.
Today I have my own practice. I still work long hours, but under different circumstances. If I could go back, I don’t think I would change a thing.
What have been some of your biggest challenges as a woman in a male- dominated industry?
There were no issues working with male attorneys or advocates, but I found that clients, men and women alike, preferred or were more confident with male attorneys. On many occasions, clients would be disappointed by the fact that I am a woman and before explaining their problem, they would usually tell me that it’s okay if I wanted to double check my advice with my (then) male partner.
It was only after spending time advising them that their attitudes towards me would change – they felt more secure and confident working with me. Some clients would ask if I could be as strong and confident as a man when making my representations.
What have been some your career highlights and most notable successes?
Being referenced in High Court judgments by some of the highest judges for the credibility of my work or version of a situation.
I also meet and consult with a number of high profile individuals and at times I wonder (perhaps because I am a woman), am I worthy to be advising or assisting this person or presenting this presentation.
It’s surreal at times thinking back to where I started and where I am now, but I’m extremely grateful and don’t take any of these things for granted.
You have a passion and heart for those on the margins of society. Where and when did this passion originate?
I do. It’s incredibly sad that people with no money are not properly protected. I therefore do a lot of pro bono work, I write off a lot of fees and am always open to offering discounts. I don’t believe what I do is a job. I believe it’s a calling and my passion. I deal with people who face various challenges on a daily basis – from losing jobs and being separated from parents or children, to being wrongfully arrested and detained, to having loved ones commit suicide because of visa issues.
Do you think being a woman in a leadership role comes with its own set of unique challenges?
I believe so. I believe that women have to work that much harder and be that much more prepared. I think that in most instances we are underestimated; it’s as if we have some sort of disability and we are treated in a manner that caters to this disability.
How do you maintain a healthy towards me would change – they felt work-life balance?
I am not sure if I have perfected this yet. I still struggle to draw the lines in the sand, particularly when it comes to people who call after hours and on weekends, but I am getting better at it. I do my best to be as involved as I can with my children’s school. My disposable time is spent at home with my children.
In your opinion, what makes a great leader?
I believe that a great leader is someone that is selfless and able to make great thought-through decisions; someone who knows how to handle challenges calmly and effectively and instill hope and peace, particularly in circumstances that seem hopeless and chaotic.
How would you describe your leadership style?
As a God-fearing person, I do my best to align my way of living, working, leading and engaging with others with biblical principles. I don’t always get this right, but it’s something I work on every day.