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Table Talk

Richard Spoor speaks truth to power

Human rights lawyer Richard Spoor recalls his bruising experiences as a rights activist in both apartheid-era and post-apartheid SA

21 October 2018 - 00:02 By BONGANI FUZILE

Human rights lawyer Richard Spoor was charged with assault under an apartheid-era penal code last month for pointing a finger at a police officer.
Listening to some of the stories he has to tell, it seems fair to conclude that a well-developed sense of irony is essential to survive as a human rights lawyer.
The alleged finger-pointing took place at a meeting addressed by mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe on September 23. Spoor is an attorney for residents of Xolobeni opposed to mining in their remote and mineral-rich part of the Wild Coast.
Spoor has known Mantashe since they were both anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s.
A video clip shows Spoor engaged in a heated discussion with Mantashe outside the marquee erected for the meeting. Spoor and a group of protesters had objected to being confined to a corner of the large marquee with armed police in front of them.
"Don't call me a liar, please. I am trying to help you. If you work with us we can work together to solve problems," Spoor tells Mantashe.
Mantashe responds: "OK. But you are disrupting my meeting."
Shortly after this recorded altercation Gen Andre Swart, head of the Eastern Cape crime prevention unit, accused Spoor of pointing a finger at him in a threatening way and he was arrested. The human rights lawyer was charged under the apartheid-era Transkei penal code.
"I said: 'Are you mad, I am surrounded by police, how would I do that?' " says Spoor.
The meeting reportedly ended with teargas being fired at the anti-mining protesters.
"We were no trouble to anyone; our sin was to be an opposing party to a meeting that was full of pro-mining people. People were bussed into that meeting from other areas. Who paid for that, what was the agenda?"
The incident reminds Spoor of his activism during the apartheid era.
"There was a service at the Regina Mundi church. The whole place had been sealed off, that was the time of the state of emergency. I think Desmond Tutu was there. I was sent there to represent people who were detained," he says.
A cop blocked his way to the church.
"I defied him. I put a foot flat on the accelerator and I drove through. I went to the church. I was driving my wife's Datsun Pulsar; we were not well paid during that time," he says, laughing. "Why is the present government practising the same tactics?"
After his "radicalisation" at the University of Cape Town, Spoor went to work for Gold Fields, but operated secretly underground.
"We had our own networks, information and propaganda. The mining company was paying for my studies, that was the time I got to know the National Union of Mineworkers.
"I was working in the mine, working as a spy inside the mining company, and on weekends in the townships, on the west rand, teaching marxism and leninism, trying to incite revolution, and it was not long after this that I was identified and dismissed. Security police identified me in a shaft strike."
He then found a job with human rights veteran Priscilla Jana. "I was a clerk, a very junior boy."
The finger-pointing incident is not the first time Spoor has clashed with authorities since 1994.
He's been publicly accused of being an opportunist, a thief and of "misleading poor communities".
Mantashe's deputy, Godfrey Oliphant, visited the area after the murder of anti-mining activist Sikhosiphi "Bazooka" Radebe. Two gunmen drew up to Radebe's house on March 22 2016 and shot him in front of his 15-year-old son.
Oliphant accused Spoor of stealing millions from workers in the Northern Cape. "I stormed at Godfrey. I started shouting at him, swearing. He was defaming me in that gathering and there was media all over. That was to provoke me so that I would be removed. The same tactic again by these politicians.
"That gathering was chaos, absolute chaos. The meeting ended right there, people were lifting their chairs in the air."
Spoor has also been accused of being a "white man" misleading the poor. "The previous minister said we have innocent people being misled and abused by white lawyers … they are being opportunistic … I could not believe what she was saying."
Although Spoor is representing the anti-mining lobby, he's actually pro-mining.
"There's wealth there for the community, but [only] if things are done right. I strongly support mining activities, but don't trample on people's rights."
Spoor says his work in Burgersfort, in Polokwane and other mining communities prepared him for the modus operandi of the Australian mining company, Mineral Commodities, which has applied for prospecting rights in Xolobeni.
"This mining company promised shares to certain people, something that divided the community. This is the same pattern … for them it's buying influence, manipulating people, trying to control the debate, and that's exactly what they've done there in Xolobeni."
Mines tend to choose greedy, unscrupulous people to partner with, says Spoor.
"They often choose the opportunistic, dishonest people. Every community has these business guys who are looking for quick deals and fast-buck plans."
Mgungundlovu is the village in the Xolobeni area that will be most affected by the planned mining. The village has 70 households and people there have been in the area for more than 100 years. Most of them are unemployed and rely on cattle farming, fishing and the ploughing of their fields to survive.
"Seventy households are affected by this and they will see their homes removed from their ancestral land. Women will lose their fields to plough and cattle which pull sleighs to collect firewood and roof- thatch grass will be things of the past as these people will be moved into a township," says Spoor.
"Where is the respect in that? Where's their constitutional right to say no? After all, these are human beings, they deserve to have their voice heard.
"Politicians care for themselves and what will benefit them."
Spoor has a group of young lawyers working with him at his Parktown offices in Johannesburg.
"This is the engine of the company, this is where we discuss and plan things," he says.
The office is owned by the Asbestos Relief Trust, which was formed when it had a class action against multinational mining conglomerates.
Together with the Kgalagadi Relief Trust, the Asbestos Relief Trust has paid more than R600m in benefits to thousands of sick mineworkers or their dependants suffering as a result of asbestos exposure.
Spoor is a veteran of class actions.
He represented more than 20 miners in a silicosis and tuberculosis class action against gold-mining companies. This year the mining companies agreed to pay more than R5bn in a mediated settlement, which will be distributed among thousands of former mineworkers.
Spoor is also working with the Catholic Church to fight for coal miners seeking compensation for occupational lung diseases. In Limpopo, more than 200 former miners were screened and "shockingly 50% of them are suffering from illnesses because of the coal mines they were working in in the Limpopo area", says Spoor.
"When you work with people … illiterate people … you need to make sure that they engage you. You are always accessible to them and do your best to provide the best service to them. People will respect you and they will always recommend you. Luckily, I've got a team here that is dedicated and they know their story."
Spoor says rural people are easily cheated. "I've seen this happening. People have been bought and moved to RDP houses, new townships built by big mining companies. Cheating rural people is very easy, they are very vulnerable. Those Xolobeni people fear they will lose their land.
"When you are tasked by a community, you have to hold mining companies accountable for their actions, and government for breaking laws for the benefit of the few. International norms and standards are not applied in SA.
"Why is our government finding it difficult to do that?"
He is adamant that culture and beliefs should be respected. "Say I am coming to mine in people's area, indigenous people's area. How do I engage with them? If I am going to displace people from their land, if I am going to destroy the livelihoods, if I am going to have an impact on their culture, how do I do this? Our laws have more provisions for a lot of environmental impacts - water, plants, birds - but what about humans? People lose their homes, lose their values, they lose their way of life."..

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