New Zealand Law Society - How anti-Apartheid protests sparked triathlete’s legal ambition

How anti-Apartheid protests sparked triathlete’s legal ambition

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Sasha Daniels
Sasha Daniels

It’s a tense couple of weeks for Sasha Daniels – senior in-house lawyer at Spark and nephew of South Africa’s most influential lawyer – before he finds out if he is one of the top corporate counsel in the world.

Having won the Asia/Pacific award in Hong Kong in March, Sasha is one of four finalists in the competition/individual category of the prestigious Association of Corporate Counsel Global Awards, to be announced at a gala dinner and ceremony in New York on 8 June.

It’s a competitive prize with about 1,000 in-house lawyers nominated for the awards regionally, and between 4,000 and 5,000 in total globally.

Sasha Daniels
Cape Town 
Entry to law
Graduated from the University of South Africa in 2003. Admitted in South Africa in 2005. Admitted in New Zealand in 2012. 
Senior in-house lawyer at Spark New Zealand Trading, Auckland.
Speciality area
Competition and regulatory law.

“A few years ago, when the awards were relatively new and there were no regional awards, I was part of the Telecom competition and regulatory team that was nominated for a global award.

“In some of the regions it’s the hottest ticket in town. In South America it’s not just the lawyers - everyone wants to be there. In Rio there’s an all-day carnival and lots of parties.”

And as a competitive runner, Sasha is no stranger to tough competition.

At the recent World Master Games in Auckland, he won age-group gold in the 800 metres and silver in both the 1500m and cross-country.

“Before that I hadn’t done track running for 20 years. I have been in longer distances such as cross-country and road running.”

Auckland overall masters road running and cross country champion in 2016, Sasha ran the Chicago marathon last year, plus a number of half marathons and took out the 2016 Mt Maunganui half marathon – scoring a trip to Hawaii.

He has also competed in triathlon, representing New Zealand in Auckland in 2012 and South Africa and Hawaii earlier.

“I have managed to keep my sporting interests going, despite the challenges of work and family, and run home 8 to 10km from work every day. At the weekend I go for a longer run, before the rest of the family wakes up.”

Sasha is on the board of Athletics Auckland and is its honorary solicitor.

Being on the committee of the Law and Economics Association of New Zealand also enables him to participate in community type activities – “and I love the stimulating work it provides.”

Fighting injustice

As a high school student in South Africa during the fight for democracy in the 1980s, he was one of the student leaders involved in the anti-Apartheid protests.

“Quite often students would embark on peaceful marches and be confronted by police and security because the marches were illegal under state of emergency regulations. People would be arrested and detained … no trial and without lawyers.

“I saw that happening first hand. That was my original motivation for doing law but after a few years I was more interested in doing something I could also make a consistent living from.

“Often, highly principled civil rights lawyers at the frontline negotiated with police and security. And often provided their legal services to students free. They were highly regarded.”

One of those civil rights lawyers was Sasha’s uncle Enver Daniels, who became, post free elections, the chief constitutional adviser to President Nelson Mandela and chief state law adviser.

“Other members of the family also made me interested in law. And I have cousins who have become lawyers as well.”

Sasha’s family moved to New Zealand in 1987 when he was 15, and he attended Mt Roskill Grammar and Otago University.

“It’s fair to say I didn’t do particularly much in the way of work at university and had a fairly scenic journey studying psychology. I figured out I was not doing quite what I intended to do, so I started work in the telco industry.

Second career

“Law is actually my second career but it was always my first passion.”

Conceding that for a while he was disillusioned in his early 20s between an idealistic youthful view and developing a more mature realistic world outlook, he found that law made it possible to reconcile the two.

“One of things I love about the law and I loved when practising in South Africa in an ivory tower top tier firm, was that at the same time our firm had a pro bono office.

“We each worked there for at least 40 hours a year in one of the townships. I saw the things people were going through, from abusive spouse, to addictions, substance abuse, selling off assets just to live and other major problems.

“It was being able to do something to help them in a meaningful way. l have valued that law has enabled me to make a difference to people’s lives.

“My parents and brother and sister moved back to South Africa after democracy. I went to visit them and was really taken by how vibrant the new democracy was and the progress of legal development.

“I have always been motivated and inspired by the work done by a lot of the lawyers in the struggle for democracy.”

On a visit back to South Africa in 1998, he was impressed with the “vibrant, positive and engaging approach to law and the fledgling democracy” in his homeland and enrolled for the LLB degree with the University of South Africa, one of the oldest in the country, which provided distance learning.

“I did that while living in New Zealand. I moved to the UK and Ireland – where I was an IT project manager – for a few years, continuing my legal studies part-time then full-time while working in the IT sector.”

In-house opportunity

After his graduation in 2003, Sasha worked for top-tier South African firms DLA Cliffe Dekker and Edward Nathan Sonnenberg, where he ended up running a competition and commercial practice with a slant towards technology.

With a young family and struggling to reconcile the demands of top-tier practice law with getting to know his three-year old daughter Leila, now 11, he was looking for an in-house opportunity and accepted an offer from what was then known as Telecom.

“I had two in-house job offers, one in South Africa and one with Telecom, but we felt the opportunity to spend some time with my wife’s family would be great and came back in 2009.”

His wife Rachel’s family are all from Auckland where Rachel is a part-time lecturer at AUT in the media and screen department. Sasha and Rachel also have a four-year old son, Alex.

“My interests are those of my children and supporting them.”

His parents moved to the United States 13 years ago where his father – a specialist doctor who previously ran the diabetic clinic at Middlemore Hospital and was a consultant in general medicine and coronary care – moved into pharmaceutical research and is global safety director for a biotech company.

Bob Marley – but not on the piano

Sasha’s mother is a music teacher – “who will probably be upset I never took my piano lessons further.

“The music the family listens to is dominated by the musical interest of my daughter. I like anything contemporary, and I’m a Reggae, Motown, Bob Marley, James Brown type.

“I travelled a bit round Europe and the US. And like holidays somewhere tropical and relaxing. This year we are going to look at Hawaii. I love to go back to South Africa to catch up with the family and to the US to Disneyland with the kids to catch up with the other side of family.

“I read sports and political biographies on Obama and Mandela. And political commentators and fiction as an escape to wind down in the summer holidays.

“I liked Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest trilogy, and Nigel Latta’s Fathers Bringing up Daughters.

“My son has a high degree of energy and he loves racing around so my holidays are less about lying down with a good book than making sure I am keeping him entertained. Leisurely reading has taken a back seat in favour of being in active pursuit of my children.

“We have Netflix and Lightbox and like Better Call Saul, House of Cards, Suits, Shameless,Madame Secretary. And I’m a big sports fan. I’m a Lewis Hamilton fan and support Manchester United, the Blues and the All Blacks.”

Madonna, Mandela and Matt Damon

“My dinner guests would include the Obamas, Mandela, and a couple of celebs – Madonna and Matt Damon. I think Damon has been involved in thought-provoking roles, right from Good Will Hunting days as well as some of his more exciting and fun Jason Bourne movies.

“I cook and would serve up something that reflects the combined heritage of our family - Malay chicken curry and typical Cape braaivleis – grilled meat. My wife loves perfectly done roast leg of lamb, with a range of salads and something spicy. A Central Otago pinot and some craft beer I have a taste for such as an APA and IPA.”

If not lawyering he says he would probably work in technology. “I enjoy the possibilities of IT and enjoy being able to blend that interest into my legal practice. But my dream occupation – although it’s a bit late now - is to be a professional footballer.”

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