Advocate vs advocates: ‘I just want to be rich’

2013-09-18 10:00

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The Cape Town shipping advocate who has taken some of the country’s top silks and law firms to the competition tribunal tells Charl du Plessis that he just wants to make the same money as his white counterparts

The Sandton Sun makes me profoundly uneasy.

Every time I go there, I can’t help but think that the gleaming interior doesn’t hide that the architecture would’ve been considered modern by the super-rich in an era when people still smoked hard and freely indoors, and white men did half-dodgy mining deals.

But Simba Chitando is perfectly comfortable here.

Dressed in a stylish dark-brown suit and sporting fashionable black-rimmed glasses, the 31-year-old advocate grins as he tells me about taking on the oldest old boys’ club in the South African legal profession.

“The thing about shipping lawyers is that it’s a fraternity ... Everybody knows everybody and they don’t just know everybody, their wives know each other.”

It was this world – where advocates can make millions in a single month – to which Chitando, a Zimbabwean with a master’s degree in commercial law, including shipping law and advanced company law, aspired.

And that world must have seemed within reach when the Cape Bar organised him an informal, six-month internship with one of the country’s best shipping advocates, Michael Wragge, SC, in 2007.

“One of the motivations was that there were no black shipping advocates in Cape Town. I spent time with him preparing, I thought, to be the first one.”

But it was not to be.

In the five years that Chitando has been with the Cape Bar, he says he has not received a single shipping brief. It’s a small club.

“It can even be hard for a white person if they (shipping lawyers) don’t think you’re posh enough.

“Shipping law is considered the crème de la crème. It’s up there with company law, with mergers and acquisitions.

“If you don’t have your Hilton (College) or Bishops badge, even as a white person, you might not be good enough.”

So Chitando decided to take the top three silks – Wragge, Russel MacWilliam, SC, and Michael Fitzgerald, SC – to the competition tribunal for anti-competitive practices. For good measure, he took along some of the country’s top attorneys firms, which briefed them.

“(The advocates) have a hundred years of litigation experience among them. They had (top advocate) Jeremy Gauntlett, SC, before and then they took on Martin Brassey, SC.

“I thought, the guy I’m going up against in court (Brassey) is where I learnt competition law. I bought the book and I read it cover to cover and that’s the guy I’m going up against.”

So what drives somebody to go ahead with what must have been a pretty daunting experience?

Chitando did not always want to be a lawyer. He’s a born-free actually, in the Zimbabwean sense, and was one of the first black kids at a majority-white school in that country.

“I was an athlete and I didn’t look to a career as a lawyer until much later on at school. I was a sprinter and planned on going to the Olympics.”

He went to St John’s College, a brother school to the Joburg institution of the same name, and grew up “not seeing race”.

“It was the reality. These were the people you went to school with, played rugby with, played soccer with and chased girls with.”

Since he took the white silks to the tribunal, he’s been held up by some as a political figure – a black advocate trying to level the racial playing fields.

So is the case commercial or political?

“It is a case, without a doubt, about money. I am out to get justice and, ultimately, compensation. That’s the only way the system will change.”

Does he want to be rich?

“I wouldn’t be rich. I’d be upper middle class to earn as much as a lawyer my age.

“I didn’t expect to be an advocate, and then a year later have an Aston Martin and live in Sandhurst.”

But does he want to eventually make what those senior counsel make? “To work my way up and be as wealthy as them or wealthier at their age? I’d say, yes.”

For now, he just wants to make enough to “take the Harley-Davidson, take the sho’t left and go to Hermanus for the weekend”.

The competition tribunal hearings continue.

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