Black advocate takes race row to tribunal

2013-08-25 14:00

‘White arrogance, racism and xenophobia’ at the heart of legal fraternity’s slow transformation

Racism in the legal fraternity and the lack of transformation reared its head this week during a competition tribunal hearing.

Zimbabwe-born, Cape Town-based advocate Simba Chitando alleged that he is not getting briefed on maritime law cases due to “racism and xenophobia” existing in South Africa’s legal fraternity.

While the competition commission is currently investigating his complaint, Chitando took three senior advocates and a number of law firms to the tribunal, seeking interim relief as he claims that he is being excluded from the market based on his race and that this is affecting his practice.

The senior advocates and law firms’ legal council argued that the competition tribunal was not the forum for the complaint.

But other black advocates that City Press spoke to argued that the benefit of Chitando’s case was that it was bringing the debate to public attention.

“Even if the tribunal rules against Chitando, they will have to comment on the serious nature of the allegations,” said one black advocate.

The black advocates that City Press spoke to argue that “white arrogance” is very prevalent in the legal sector.

Nokukhanya Jele, a junior member of the Johannesburg Bar, said it wasn’t just racism that was prevalent, but sexism too.

Jele said that when she worked as a junior council on a public finance management case that involved billions of rands, she was told: “This is way too complicated for you, my girlie, don’t even bother drafting it.”

Jele said that a lot of work had to be done to combat racism and sexism in the legal fraternity, and that it wasn’t just about transformation of the advocates profession, but the attorneys profession too.

Jele said there was still a lot of “tokenism” in legal teams and there were assumptions made that you had nothing to offer as a black female advocate.

The hearing, which was held on Monday, became heated at times with clear animosity between Chitando, the legal firms and representatives of senior advocates.

Present in the room were a number of black lawyers supporting Chitando.

“South Africans should be ­embarrassed that it took a ­Zimbabwean to highlight this ­issue,” said one, who did not want to be named.

Chitando said he was seeking to correct the imbalances in the system. “I want to challenge the racialised legal system that is a product of apartheid,” he said.

“There is a regrettable perception that if you are a black advocate, you should go work for government.”

Chitando’s argument was backed up by a number of black advocates who spoke to City Press. “There are serious challenges and briefing patterns remain a problem,” said one senior black advocate. “This is because of racial prejudice within the system. If briefing was done on merit, there would be black ­advocates getting private work from law firms.”

A senior black advocate said that there was a lot of “white arrogance” in the system and he had heard arguments like, “but clients want to win their cases”.

Another black advocate said that sometimes black advocates are briefed as junior councils, but there is no expectation from the white council that you will bring anything to the party.

“They don’t believe you can contribute. They don’t even expect it. You are only there to make up the racial mix.”

During the hearing, Chitando recalled two instances of direct racism. In the first, a senior advocate of the Cape Bar asked him: “Why do you want to practice maritime law? There is no ocean in Zimbabwe.”

In the second, a senior advocate of the Cape Bar told him while they were using a bathroom: “Simba, you will practice from this toilet one day.”

The advocates representing the legal firms and senior advocates argued that Chitando was not getting briefed because he was not experienced enough.

Advocate Alfred Cockrell of Shepstone & Wylie said that even if the tribunal ruled in Chitando’s favour, the firm would not give him work as he was “not good enough”.

Responding to the other advocates, Chitando pointed out how their argument and the language they used to discredit him was in fact racist.

“According to them, I am lazy, incompetent and I don’t know what I am doing,” he said.

The tribunal will make its judgment public at a later point.

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