Struggle lawyer led the charge
Michael Richman (1936 – 2018)
Michael Richman, a distinguished lawyer who used his legal skills in the struggle for human rights during a career spanning nearly 50 years, died in Cape Town on May 30 at the age of 81 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Born in Cape Town on August 25 1936, he matriculated from Sea Point Boys’ High school in 1954, commencing legal articles of clerkship soon thereafter. After qualifying as an attorney, Richman practised in Cape Town for about 30 years from 1960 onwards. In those years, he made his mark not only as a human rights attorney long before that term was even coined but also as a top commercial lawyer.
In the early 1960s, he was one of the two founding partners of the firm Ress, Richman & Co, which later became Mallinick, Ress, Richman & Closenberg when Gerald Mallinick and his father Louis joined forces with them.
From the firm’s inception until 2008, when it amalgamated with Webber Wentzel, the firm made a substantial contribution to the cause of using law to protect the rights of persons and organisations struggling under legal onslaught from the state in the form of political trials, detention without trial, pass law oppression, banning orders, race re-classifications and a myriad other legal instruments of the apartheid state.
When Richman and Cyril Ress started their firm, they were only in their 20s.
Opening their own practice rather than working their way up through the ranks of one of the established firms was a bold step and gave early notice of their independent-mindedness.
The new practice got off to a slow start. Richman liked to tell the story of how someone in a neighbouring building approached him one day unable to contain his curiosity any longer and asked: “What is it that you chaps do because you just seem to stand looking out of the window all day?”
Nonetheless, within a short time, Richman was representing detainees under the newly promulgated, and soon to be notorious, 90-day detention; without trial law introduced by the then justice minister, BJ Vorster. Richman acted for Albie Sachs, then a young advocate and political activist, in a challenge to the terms of his detention, which excluded access even to a lawyer, let alone family members. The application sought to allow the detainee access to reading and writing material during detention.
Under the law’s draconian provisions, the Security Police were permitted to isolate and interrogate (and frequently tortured) detainees with minimal legal supervision.
Although the challenge was initially successful in the high court, the gains were soon reversed in the appellate division, ushering in decades of deaths in detention.
In Gosschalk vs Rossouw 1966, Richman successfully represented Bernard Gosschalk, an architect similarly detained under the 90-day detention law, presenting evidence that he was being interrogated day and night without sleep.
In the bleak years that followed, Richman was the instructing attorney for a wide range of people facing criminal charges brought by an increasingly repressive state. These included the 11 accused in the State vs Alexander and Others, who were charged with sabotage by conspiring to overthrow the state. The protracted trial eventually led to long prison sentences for the accused, who included Neville Alexander and Fikile Bam.
Some 40 years later, Bam was appointed judge president of the Land Claims Court and Alexander went on to become a highly respected academic and social and political activist. Both formed lifelong friendships with Richman.
In later decades, Richman represented people facing imprisonment for their political activities, often as members or supporters of the banned ANC.
This led to his acting on behalf of many political prisoners on Robben Island including, in 1978, litigation by his firm on behalf of Kader Hassim and Sonny Venkatrathnam against the officer commanding Robben Island Prison. This was an early attempt, partly successful, to secure permission for political prisoners to study, and to have recreational activities, copies of the Prisons Act and Regulations, and relief from isolation or segregation.
Richman also built a reputation as a highly skilled commercial lawyer and had a unique practice. On any given day, he might consult with a captain of industry, a prominent figure in the anti-apartheid struggle or a township resident grappling with some bureaucratic aspect of petty apartheid.
All received the benefit of Richman’s creative legal mind, his sense of justice and humanity as well as his mischievous sense of humour.
The late 1970s and 1980s saw an ever-growing influx of black families into the Western Cape and particularly Cape Town in defiance of the influx control laws, which sought to maintain the Western Cape as a “coloured labour preference area”.
Richman acted for people living in informal settlements targeted by the state and for many organisations and individuals opposed to these laws and to the mass evictions and destruction of what were then called “squatter camps” and “shacks”.
Among these individuals was Bishop David Russell, then a young Anglican cleric, who became an enduring target of the Security Police for his work among migrant workers and in support of these besieged communities.
The work flowed into what was to become the greatest achievement of Richman’s legal career — his representation of the Crossroads community in their long and arduous battle for the right to settle and work in Cape Town in defiance of the influx control laws.
In a long, patient and resourceful campaign, Crossroads became an international symbol of the cruelty of the apartheid system and the growing resistance to it, as well as a potent symbol of the determination of black people to live together as families in urban centres of their choosing and to fight for decent housing.
During these years, Richman’s considerable legal intellect, his creative thinking and his unflagging determination to see his client prevail was a crucial element in formulating strategies for the survival of Crossroads and in formulating alliances with other organisations to publicise and gain support for the community in its struggle.
Eventually the campaign led to negotiations between the Crossroads community and the government, headed by minister Piet Koornhof, and with the Urban Foundation also playing a role.
These negotiations culminated in an agreement that the Crossroads community would at last be formally recognised and for the development and financing of formal housing for many of its inhabitants.
The opaqueness of the negotiations, the somewhat vaguely worded agreement (which Koornhof presumably had to sell to his fellow Cabinet members) and some of the apparent concessions required of the community led to criticism from some activists on the left who believed that no quarter should be given to the state and that the community should risk its own destruction if all its demands were not met. In the process, Richman and other representatives of the community were accused of selling out.
Throughout this difficult period, Richman, his co-negotiators and the community as a whole remained convinced that the deal was the best attainable and in its best interests.
Time would prove this approach correct: Crossroads was eventually transformed from an informal settlement under continuous threat of destruction into an area compromising largely formal housing. No Crossroads residents were excluded from the city after the agreement was implemented and influx control measures soon became a dead letter in Cape Town.
All of Richman’s work over the years on behalf of the Crossroads community was done without charge, a cost his partners willingly bore.Throughout his years in practice, Richman attracted and inspired several generations of young lawyers to the firm, who made their own contribution by using their legal skills in the service of victims of the apartheid system and those struggling to overthrow it.
Towards the end of the 1980s, Richman was instrumental in opening a London office for his firm and thereafter divided his time between Cape Town and London.
During the early 1990s, he played a key role in helping exiled South Africans to return to South Africa after the February 1990 unbanning of the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress and the South African Communist Party.
He retired from practice about 10 years ago, increasingly afflicted by Alzheimer’s.
Richman married Brenda Factor in 1960 and they had three children.
After the couple divorced, he re-married. He leaves his wife, Sandi, his children Anton, Deidre and Howard, and several grandchildren. — Judge Lee Bozalek, who worked with Michael Richman between 1975 and 1984