Just as mass protests were beginning at various campuses across South Africa, a fracas broke out among leading advocates at the country’s Bar.
Leading human rights lawyer Richard Spoor was questioned about his decision to argue an important case on silicosis with an overwhelmingly white and male team. Spoor suggested he had little choice, arguing that “we only brief exceptional counsel,” including juniors who have graduated “summa cum laude” and “who quite frankly border on genius”. These kinds of cases, he concluded, don’t “leave much room for charity or experimentation”.
A group of 12 black advocates – some of the country’s finest lawyers – issued a public statement to Spoor, calling his comments racist. This has to date been signed by 115 lawyers. Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza, who represented the families of miners after the 2012 Marikana massacre, suggested that the “summa cum laude” comment was especially insulting:
Some of us were lucky to even get to university. Some of us studied by candlelight, because there was no electricity.
The clash between members of an elite and traditionally conservative profession offered a window into the present moment. It highlighted tensions between what renowned political scientist James C. Scott refers to as “public” and “hidden” transcripts.