Advocate accuses 'mainly white' Free State legal Bar of racism

Nkagiseng Khooe says Bar is hostile and insensitive to issues of transformation

Advocate accuses 'mainly white' Free State legal Bar of racism

3 July 2018

An advocate has resigned from the Free State Bar, accusing "the mainly white Bar" of being hostile and insensitive to issues of transformation.

In her scathing resignation letter, advocate Nkagiseng Khooe accuses the Bar of "quashing any ideas that threatened the status quo".

She laments that the Bar decided a fund created to help previously disadvantaged individuals in their first year of practice, should now also be extended to white males.

"In the last Annual General Meeting it was voted that the PDI fund be extended to include white male candidates, thus completely wiping out the original intention of the project, that is transformation.

"Now explain to me how extending this to white males who are already [the] majority in this Bar is pro-transformation?" Khooe asks in her letter.

The fund, which depends on voluntary contributions by members, had until now assisted black members of the Bar.

"There was [a] vote where the majority felt that there are white males that are previously disadvantaged and, therefore, should get access to the fund. It just makes me angry thinking about it again," she told News24.

Paul Zietsman, chairperson of the Bar, admitted the majority of members at the Bar’s April AGM had agreed that the words "black and female" be deleted from the criteria for applicants seeking assistance from the fund, because "it discriminates on the bases of gender and race".

"The mere fact that the beneficiaries of the fund are not limited to black or female candidates does not detract from the means test relating to personal circumstances of an applicant for financial support," Zietsman said in a written response to News24.

He, however, dismissed Khooe’s comments that the Bar was hostile to transformation as "without merit".

Khooe, who has been a member of the Bar since 2014, said it had also failed to recruit and retain black women advocates, and had instead regressed in some areas.

"In trying to increase our intake of black female advocates over the years, I can count a few times where a white male candidate was preferred over a female, under the pretence that the female candidate was less experienced," she said.

Zietsman said it was correct that the Bar still comprised more white male members than female, black, coloured or Indian members, however, the "membership composition has enjoyed the attention of the Bar Council".

He said that their statistics showed that, since 2012, they had selected five black females, 13 black males, one coloured male, one coloured female, one Indian male, five white females and 10 white male candidates to undertake the pupillage programme.

A source, who is a member of the Bar, said Khooe was one of only two black women advocates who were currently members, and that she had stayed the longest, having been a member for four years.

"Others just drop out after a year or two. Others never survive, as they just feel sidelined," the source said.

Zietsman told News24 that Khooe had "desperately argued" in favour of a black female from Lesotho to be admitted, but the majority had voted against a more "preferred candidate still applying the transformation criteria".

"Unfortunately, many of the pupils from previously disadvantaged backgrounds have, after completing their pupillage, opted for more lucrative opportunities in the public and private sector. Notwithstanding, the Bar has and is actively attending to the composition," he said.

"On a personal level, I am deeply disappointed with the tone and the unfounded allegations of advocate Khooe’s letter. The Free State Bar’s commitment to transformation cannot be disputed," Zietsman added.

Khooe said, in her letter, that the language policy remained a source of contention within the Bar. She wrote that she had boycotted all internal communication, as it was done in Afrikaans, and that at some point she had started responding only in Sesotho.

She said despite a decision for all communication to be done in English, Afrikaans was still used.

"After that resolution, somehow the hostility resurfaced last year, the result being that communication be in both English and Afrikaans. Total immaturity if you ask me. But then again, who am I to complain? How dare I," Khooe wrote.

Zietsman disagreed with Khooe, saying the 2017 decision for all communication to be done in English still stood, with all official functions of the Bar also conducted in English.