‘Law Society dispute an issue of governance, not race’

Anyone who believes the recent conflict between lawyers belonging to the Law Society of the Northern Provinces (LSNP) is racially motivated is mistaken, according to Law Society of South Africa co-chair Vincent Saldanha. But the woman at the centre of the row, Matshego Ramagaga, disagrees.

Saldanha spoke to the Mail & Guardian after the Sunday Times reported that LSNP members fell out over the nomination of Ramagaga — a member of the Black Lawyers’ Association (BLA), acting judge and attorney — to sit on the provincial body’s council.

Governance issues, said Saldanha, are the reason for the dispute between the BLA and some LSNP council members.

The dispute is essentially about a failure to put proper ”protocols” in place and the attorneys’ profession should take responsibility for the fallout, said Saldanha.

The LSNP does not have the protocols to determine when a member can be considered ”exemplary and beyond reproach”.

The council’s mandate covers attorneys who practise in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West.

At the core of the dispute is the fact that 12 white council members opposed the promotion of Ramagaga, who chairs the Gauteng Law Society, to the 24-member council of the LSNP.

Both the BLA and the National Democratic Lawyers’ Association (Nadel) lashed out at the council, accusing it of introducing vetting measures only after Ramagaga’s nomination in a bid to exclude her.

The move has led to an impasse, with both bodies reportedly walking out of a meeting when the matter was put to a vote. The furore subsequently led to accusations of racism levelled at the 12-member ”statutory” component of the LSNP.

In an interview with the M&G, Ramagaga said the actions of the council were motivated by racism. She said a ”white, male-dominated” clique in the council was being territorial and wanted to retain the status quo. ”These are members who, collectively, have been on the council for 99 years.”

She said council members needed to understand that the law society is not a ”retirement village”.

LSNP president Jan Janse van Rensburg said Ramagaga’s nomination was opposed ”purely on sound principles of good governance”. He said Ramagaga did not meet the disciplinary standards required to sit on the regulatory body.

”It is essential for a councillor to enjoy the confidence, trust and respect of both attorneys and the public and an acceptable disciplinary profile is therefore a prerequisite for such an appointment,” said Van Rensburg.

The body was formed from the ranks of a 1996 transitional arrangement that saw the white-dominated provincial law societies agree to expand representation in the various societies throughout the country. The arrangement saw the 12-member council expanded to 24, with the BLA and Nadel each taking six seats.

The 50:25:25 ratio was meant to have lasted for about two years while a new Bill, the Legal Practice Bill, was being prepared to replace legislation enacted in 1979.

Council member and BLA national treasurer President Mnisi said some of the problems in the profession were a result of the stalling of new legislation that would see the lawyers compete on an equal footing. This situation, he said, has compromised the transformation agenda.

The spokesperson for the justice minister, Zolile Nqayi, said the legislation was delayed because of differences between attorneys and advocates. Attorneys are in favour of legislation governing the entire legal profession, while advocates oppose this.

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