Since the days of Apartheid, South Africa has been hailed for undergoing a complete transformation which has seen drastic improvements in racial equality. However, black groups still remain very much underrepresented among the country’s lawyers.
Those who would once have been severely restricted by Apartheid now make up two thirds of the past ten years’ law graduates. While this figure would look encouraging on its own, data from the Law Society of South Africa reveals that only 37% of the country’s practising attorneys are black. There is evidently great disparity between the number of black people who complete law degrees in South Africa and the number who go on to work as lawyers. When it is considered that approximately 79% of South Africa’s population as a whole are black, even the two thirds (66%) of graduates that are black begins to look a little low.
According to South African attorney Michael Motsoeneng Bill, “The rhetoric has been that there was room for all of us, but it created too high an expectation. The idea that you are a black lawyer and therefore your fate is sealed is wrong.” Bill himself has enjoyed success as a black lawyer, but has also seen how difficult it is for his peers to get on in the industry.
The reason for the underrepresentation of black people among South Africa’s 22,000 practicing solicitors, Bill theorises, is that 80% of law firms remain white-owned, and this figure includes many of the big players. This is coupled with the fact that corporate clients are the most lucrative and desirable ones in the legal industry, and corporations in South Africa also remain heavily white-dominated. Bill suggests that ultimately, “They often don’t have the courage to change the status quo and diversify briefing patterns.” This leaves black lawyers confined to lower-paying areas of practice such as conveyancing, and such restrictions could potentially be a disincentive to work as a solicitor at all.
For some, the issue of underrepresentation has been highlighted by the high-profile Oscar Pistorius trial. Thanks to the decision to allow the trial to be televised, it has shown a case within the South African court system to the world. The picture the world has seen has included an all-white defence team and predominantly white team acting for the prosecution. Considering the giant steps towards equality and diversity that so many other parts of South Africa have experienced in recent years, many have found this image a surprising one.