It is charmingly quaint. Some South African lawyers believe that their profession might be brought into more disrepute than that in which it already wallows.
It is also indescribably sad that it is the exercise of free speech that they believe is the likely cause of such a calamity.
According to a TimesSelect report, 29 “aggrieved” lawyers have lodged a disciplinary complaint with the Legal Practice Council (LPC) against Johannesburg attorney Marc Aupiais. Aupiais has supposedly committed the grievous offence of “potentially bringing the legal profession into disrepute”.
Aupiais' allegedly disreputable behaviour was not in the time-hallowed manner of the typical South African rogue lawyer. In other words, it was not by embezzling money from the firm's trust account, nor by failing to carry out work in a competent and timely manner, nor by overcharging a client.
Neither was it in the new tradition of the politically connected South African lawyer. Scores of these legal weasels have during the past decade been complicit in abetting and/or ignoring outrageous acts of state capture and corporate malfeasance. Few or none have faced professional censure by their oversight bodies.
No, Aupiais did something far more egregious than undermining the moral and financial foundations of the state or bamboozling clients. Instead, he said something very naughty on Twitter. Or as the reporter phrased it, he sent off an “insensitive tweet”.
According to the upset lawyers petitioning the LPC, Aupiais comments were of such a magnitude that they “violated the values of human dignity and equality as enshrined in the Constitution”. His words were “an affront to the historical suffering of many South Africans and the project of bringing about social reform to ensure the democratic society”. His “remarks sows (sic) division and are deeply offensive to many South Africans”.
So, what vile calumny did Aupiais utter?
It was a reaction to a tweet about the death of Zindzi Mandela, the feisty and outspoken daughter of Nelson and Winnie, and an ardent apostle of the forced seizure of white land. The tweet he was responding to, on the face of it, appears to have been unremarkable. It read: “Zindzi Mandela (59) just died in Johannesburg … do you guys remember her?”.
But fearless journalism has exposed the true, diabolical nature of the exchange. The first tweet was posted by someone called Willem Petzer who, we are breathlessly told by the reporter, is a “popular alt-right figure who has feverishly campaigned as an activist for (sic) what he perceives to be a ‘white genocide’.”
Petzer, aside from being politically beyond the pale and feverish, also apparently — the tweet has been deleted — showed his indifference to Zindzi Mandela’s death with an inappropriate emoticon, presumably a smiley face.
Aupiais, in turn, exiled himself from civilised society by allegedly responding — following the furore, he has removed himself and the tweet from Twitter — that Zindzi had “finally got her plot of land”.
Gettit? Plot of land? Dead Zindzi?
In case you don’t comprehend, the reporter is earnestly helpful. This riposte, he writes, “is believed to be a veiled reference to her grave”.
Now, for someone brought up on Rumpole of the Bailey and currently hooked on the acid-tongued antics of Sydney lawyer Cleaver Greene in the Rake television series, the faux outrage over Aupiais' comment is puzzling. I’d always thought that one of the defining characteristics of a fine legal mind was the ability to skewer with a phrase, to geld with a sentence.
To anyone who detests the political views of Zindzi, Aupiais' comment would be damn funny. And since it was posted on a social media platform that specialises in the outrageous and the provocative, one would have thought that those slumming on Twitter could be assumed to be emotionally robust enough to endure a little snipe.
After all, things could be far worse, when it comes to “violating the values of human dignity and equality as enshrined in the Constitution”. Take, for example, these tweets:
“[I] miss all these trembling white cowards, shem. Botha, Potgieter, Thieving Rapist descendants of Van Riebeck (sic), etc: how are you my babies? We shall gesels more Mr Skont and Ms Unus #OurLand”.
Also, “They are cowards. You know those uninvited visitors who don't want to leave.”
It is by no means unusual on Twitter to insult other race groups by labelling them cunts and arseholes. (Although I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clever use of elision, as in the first tweet, above — and in a second language, Afrikaans, nogal — to make the comparison with such flair and subtlety.)
But what is unusual is that these tweets remain on Twitter more than a year later. That despite a flood of complaints that they contravened Twitter’s regulations against so-called “hate speech”. And despite the tweeter being reprimanded by her employer.
This could be, as many whites will assume, because the comments were by a black person about white people. It seems that social media has a higher tolerance of black-on-white abuse than the reverse. Or it could, more credibly, be because they were made by a prominent public figure — in this case, by Zindzi Mandela.
Zindzi’s tweets were not, however, made in the heat of a fury-frothing moment by a divisive politician. Nor by a private citizen, who had allowed their wit to outrun their circumspection.
They were made by Zindzi over several days while she was serving as our ambassador to Denmark. Our ambassador. Of all South Africans.
Zindzi’s punishment was seen by her supporters to be traitorously swift and terrible. She was rebuked by her boss, International Relations and Co-operation Minister Naledi Pandor, for her lack of diplomacy and made to promise not to do it again. No apology, no withdrawal, no erasure of the tweets.
I have no time for conspiracy theorists, like Petzer, who believe there is a government-tolerated white genocide taking place in SA, although I can understand their concern over the widespread denial that farm attacks are a problem. Neither do I feel any warmth for an ambassador, like Mandela, resorting to racist stereotypes against her fellow citizens, although I can understand her bitterness.
I would, however, not wish to silence either party. And it does perturb me greatly that 29 unnamed lawyers are trying to do exactly that. By approaching the LPC they are trying — by regulation and intimidation — to censor the free speech rights guaranteed in our painfully arrived at Constitution.
It would be good to know who these 29 lawyers are, if for no other reason than to avoid them professionally. Given their tenuous grasp of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, who would want to be represented by a lawyer who wants a colleague disciplined because of the heinous crime of “disrespect to Her Excellency the late ambassador”?
Unfortunately, for now, their identities remain bafflingly secret. The complainants, via the LPC, refused to speak to me about revealing their identities. And the LPC, pending a response from their disciplinary committee, won't me see the full complaint. Since Aupiais is incommunicado, wisely keeping his head below the parapet, their names, for now, remain unknown.
Nevertheless, it’s going to be interesting to see how the LPC handles this political hot potato. If they give it anything other than short shrift, it will be the anonymous 29 and the LPC itself, placing the SA legal profession into disrepute.
Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye