Mokhethwa Sekete is the first to confess that he “hated courts”, thus making his journey to a decades-long career as a court interpreter all the more interesting.
“The reason I became an interpreter is because I was always getting traffic fines so I would spend a lot of time in court. So, I would say those traffic fines led me to this job,” the 65-year-old said.
Born and bred in Alexandra, Johannesburg, Sekete’s journey started in 1986 after one too many traffic fines and a sharp-eared and observant interpreter at the court nudged him into a fulfilling career.
“I was attending my own case one day when an interpreter at one of the courts where I was attending my own case said I should consider becoming an interpreter because I spoke so well and I understood most languages,” Sekete said.
“I took his advice and I applied and I never looked back ever since. I never wanted to change my career,” he said.
Sekete’s fluency in 10 of South Africa’s 11 official languages has enabled him to work on some of the country’s biggest and most prominent cases.
One such case was the Sebokeng massacre in January 1991, in which 30 people were killed.
“That was the first time I cried,” he told News24, as he recalled the testimony of a woman who survived an attack by three men who shot her boyfriend and raped her before shooting her as well.
“This is a job that you need to be passionate about,” Sekete said.
The tall, soft-spoken man retired in 2012, however he said he still helps at the court on a contract basis.
His memory is one of his strongest qualities, he said.
“My memory is so sharp I still remember courtrooms and names of magistrates from 10 years back,” he said.
“I have been around and I have done cases that would break a person – but the job is fulfilling. It is what I know and I am still enjoying it,” Sekete said.
‘That case was too much for me’
The ability to remain strong-minded and empathetic while recounting another person’s trauma is what has enabled Sekete to craft a career out of the job.
“Be humble as an interpreter and respect the accused and the witnesses. Sometimes it is difficult to cope or even sleep at night when you have to interpret a sad case – a case that also affects you,” he said.
“It gives you nightmares because you tend to put yourself in other people’s shoes. You start picturing yourself in that situation.”
One such case was the recent coffin assault trial, where two farmers were found guilty of attempted murder, kidnapping, intimidation and assault after they put Victor Mlotshwa in a coffin last year, while they filmed the incident.
The footage of the incident went viral on social media.
“During Mlotshwa’s testimony, the court played the video of him being forced into the coffin and when he broke down I also could not hold back my tears. It was so painful. I cried as well.
“I even imagined my own son. That case was too much for me.”
The two farmers will spend an effective 11 years and 14 years behind bars, and Sekete is aware of his critical role in the case.
“As an interpreter, I played a significant role in the case. I was able to communicate the proceedings to those who were in court and also those who were watching at home.”
Although he has “been around”, Sekete has no plans to quit the job he loves so dearly any time soon.