Tell us about your background with us?
When I was 11 years old I was chosen to take part in a German language course at the German School (subsidised by the German Government) in Willows, Pretoria. I showed aptitude for the German language and finished the four year course. I then attended the Maxstibbe Private School, which was run by Germans, and took German as a language. Another opportunity presented itself when I was finishing my Law Degree to study for an LLM in Comparative Company Law in Germany. As I was over 21, I grabbed the opportunity. Prior to being allowed to study at the University of Bonn, I had to pass a German language proficiency exam at university level. It’s one thing to read, write and speak a foreign language in every day speech, but it’s another thing to be required to write and speak that language in legal terms. I was required to study and pass German Civil Law, Criminal Law, Constitutional Law, Company Law and Commercial Law before I was allowed to write my thesis but I subsequently obtained my degree Magna Cum Laude.
When it comes to women representation in the law sector, do you feel progress has been made in the last five years?
Mamelodi raised, partner at Spoor and Fisher, and President of the South African Institute of Intellectual Property Law (SAIIP), Tshepo Shabangu is a remarkable force to be reckoned with.
Of the approximate reported 20 551 qualified practising attorneys in 2011, there were only 6 934 women and just under 500 Intellectual Property (IP) attorneys. It’s therefore apparent that the number of practising female attorneys is relatively low compared to male attorneys and that there is generally a shortage of IP attorneys. But there has been an emerging trend over the last few years, which shows a healthy dose of female professionals in the IP system, waiting to qualify or moving through the ranks. In fact there are more female trademark practitioners than males, whereas the same cannot be said about female patent attorneys who are substantially less than their male counter parts.
You have always been driven from an early age, (you decided to study German at age 11); who were your influences in life that gave you your drive to succeed?
Despite German being a third language, I completed my language course at the German school as well as what was supposed to be a four-year Masters course for foreign students at the University of Bonn in two years. I believe success comes when people’s boundaries are pushed, boundaries people set for themselves and boundaries set for them by others. I was told that as German was not my native tongue; I would not be able to complete the course in less than four years. I decided to ignore the limitations put by others and ran my race thus finishing the course in two years.
You have made history by becoming the first black person to be elected as President of the South African Institute of Intellectual Property Law and the only person to be re-elected to that position. What do you think got you the vote of confidence to get a second term?
I believe that as a leader, your measure lies in what you do for those you serve and for the community as a whole. Perhaps I measured up to the adage which says, “The one whom people put in charge of much, they will demand more than usual of him/her’. I worked very hard for the benefit of members and to be worthy of their trust. The strides, which were achieved during my tenure, were part of a concerted team effort as no one can make it alone. I think one of the important questions anyone in a leadership role can ask himself or herself: “What kind of a legacy am I leaving behind? Have I left the organisation that I am leading in a better state than I found it? Were people’s lives affected for the better because of my leadership?
Intellectual Property Law is something that is still a mystery to many South Africans – do you feel enough is being done to educate the people about their Intellectual Property rights?
The SAIIPL is educating its members and the public on IP rights, but there is still a lot that needs to be done. There are many people out there who still don’t realise you can choose IP as a career. I think that the exposure and education about IP rights should begin in high schools, perhaps in Grade 11 and 12, so that the students can at least think about embarking on a career in IP. IP wasn’t given as a subject when I was at varsity so I think that if people are made aware of it, earlier rather than later, more people will take an interest in finding out about IP laws and perhaps choosing this area of law as a vocation.
What needs to be done in order for your Institute to get to a stage where they are working hand in hand with government?
We need to constantly work at fostering our relationship with government, offer our expertise in IP matters and co-operate on issues of mutual interest. Government does recognise to an extent the importance of IP and its impact on the economy; if we work together we can educate businesses, Small and Medium Enterprises and ordinary laymen about the importance of protecting their IP and its value.
Many women are choosing to be career women and mothers at the same time, how do you manage to successfully strike the balance, being such a powerful figure and a mother of twins?
I don’t always feel that I am striking a balance, but I can say that I wouldn’t be able to manage ten-year-old and five-year-old twins without my husband’s involvement and support. I try to run my relationship with my family like a business and have key performance indicators for my role as mom and a wife. I diarise parent / teacher meetings as well as my children’s school functions that I need to attend. If I need to work at home, I do so after our family worship, homework and when the kids are in bed and my husband and I have discussed our experiences for the day.
What advice would you offer women struggling to handle the duties of work and home?
Don’t try to be a super-woman. Do what you can to the best of your abilities and delegate what you can’t get to. Where possible, delegate your housework to a housekeeper and delegate certain errands to your family, relatives and friends, if possible. Of course you must be available to do the same for them when necessary. I actively encourage the family unit. I think even if people are working late hours at home, they should always find a way to spend time with their families. For instance if you have to take work home, gather the family into one room, even if they are all engaged in their own activities such as reading. This leaves an open channel for communication and sharing.
What advice would you offer young women who are looking to make as huge a mark in their respective industries as you have done?
As I mentioned before, it’s about setting goals and pushing boundaries. Young people must realise that they are making a name for themselves and building track records so they must not be known or seen as “NO” persons by their respective bosses. They must be prepared to take assignments given to them, even if they are not glamorous for the sake of their development. In my experience, if you are faithful in fulfilling the smaller tasks, you will likely obtain the bigger assignments. It’s also important to get a mentor, but you must be prepared to be a good mentee and do your share. Take responsibility for your development and progression.
It’s women’s month in August – what does that mean to you, if anything?
In my opinion the role of women should not only be highlighted during a specific month or day. Women need to be celebrated every day because of the huge contribution they make in society as a whole. Women bring the so-called soft skills, which are important in business today. Somebody once said, “Any woman who trades her femininity for the imagined rewards of being masculine trades away the true delights of her birth right”. I fully agree with this statement. The best advice I received was, “Be yourself, don’t try to act like one of the guys and chart your own course”.
Do you feel enough is being done to highlight the plight of women in South Africa and Africa as a whole?
No, lots of work still needs to be done in this regard. From my side, I mentor a number of women and avail myself to assist them when needed. If I unable to help, I use my extended networks to offer the assistance required.