Lex Mpati was born in Durban. His maternal grandparents were from the Fort Beaufort, Eastern Cape, and this is where his parents sent him when he was a baby. He attended the St Joseph’s Catholic School in Fort Beaufort until Grade 8, walking 5km a day to get to and from school. Before and after school, Mpati herded the small herd of cattle his family owned with his cousins.
He matriculated from the Mary Waters High School, Grahamstown in 1967. After his matriculation, he was hired for his first job as a petrol attendant in Grahamstown. He also worked as a barman and a furniture salesperson. Out of interest, he would sit in on several cases when he had time off from the filling station job, attending political trials of student activists to criminal cases.
The kind owner and manager of the motel where he worked as a barman encouraged him to study law and allowed him to fit his working hours around his classes and studies.
Judge Mpati started his law degree when he was 30 years old. In his second and third year, he received a scholarship which covered his studies and to buy books.
After obtaining his BA (Law) (1981) and LLB (l983) degrees at Rhodes University, and practiced as an attorney until the beginning of 1989. He was arrested for illegally operating as a taxi driver at the Grahamstown railway station in 1968, and he was given the option to pay a fine or go to court. Mpati chose the latter and decided to defend himself. Eventually he was found not guilty.
He became a member of the Eastern Cape Bar in 1989, and worked as an in-house counsel for the Legal Resources Centre in Grahamstown.
In April 1996, Mpati was appointed as senior counsel and shortly afterwards as an Acting Judge. He was a member of the Eastern Cape Society of Advocates from February 1989 to January 1997.After serving as an Acting Judge for eight months, Mpati was appointed as a judge of the Eastern Cape Division on1 February 1997. He was a member of a 1994 delegation to Chile to study their Truth and Reconciliation Committee and was a member of the Trengove Commission to determine the boundary between the Eastern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal.
He was appointed Judge of Appeal for the Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa in 2001 (he acted in this post from 1 June 1999). He became the first permanently appointed Black person to this post and became the Deputy President of the Supreme Court of Appeal. Mpati held the position of Deputy President from 1 January 2003 to 14 August 2008, until his appointment as President of the Supreme Court of Appeal in August 2008. He was appointed as RhodesUniversity's Chancellor in February 2013, replacing Professor Jakes Gerwel, who had died. From 1 June 2007 until 30 November 2007, Judge Mpati was an Acting Judge in South Africa’s Constitutional Court.
Judge Mpati has been involved in legal education and training in various ways. He has acted as an external examiner in the Rhodes Law Faculty and moderator of the National Bar Examination. He was also a member of the Judicial Education Planning Committee, a sub-committee of the Judicial Service Commission.
Rhodes University bestowed a Doctor of Laws (honoris causa) on him in 2004, marking the 100th year of the University’s existence. The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth conferred a LLD (Honoris Causa) on Judge Mpati in April 2011. He was a Professor Extraordinary in the Department of Constitutional Law and Philosophy of Law at the University of the Free State from 2004 to 2008.
A keen rugby player, Judge Mpati is a founding member of the South Eastern Districts Rugby Union, which was affiliated with the non-racial South African Rugby Union, based in Kimberley. He played in centre position for the South Eastern Districts Rugby Union. He has also served on the South African Rugby Union and South African Rugby Football Union committees. He now plays social squash and tennis. He also served on the legal committee of Sanzar, the body that governs South African, New Zealand and Australian rugby.
He is married to Mireille Nontobeko and they have four children.
Consultus, May 1997 Lex Mpati - https://www.sabar.co.za/law-journals/1997/may/1997-may-vol010-no1-pp21-22.pdf Accessed on 18 March 2013|
[25 February 2013 ”“ A. Carlisle]|