South Africa's first non-racial lawyers' body, the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), was finally launched last week, ending two years of sometimes acrimonious debate over its establishment.
The Pretoria-based LSSA, to be headed by two co-chairs, Esme Du Plessis and Willie Seripi, will act as an umbrella organisation, representing the country's four provincial Bars and two national bodies, the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel) and the Black Lawyers' Association (BLA).
The Association of Law Societies (ALS) the dominant professional body linked to the white legal establishment in the apartheid years has been disbanded.
Andre Van Vuuren, the former director general of the ALS, described the LSSA as “an achievement of immense proportions to the profession” and “the culmination of a great deal of hard work which started in 1996”.
However, the creation of the body was always touch-and-go with one provincial Bar only approving the plans a week before the launch.
“We had endless meetings, rounds of negotiations, and compromises needed to be struck,” said Van Vuuren.
One sticking point was how the constituent Bar associations should be represented on the LSSA's council.
Although the vast majority of the profession is white, the LSSA's governing body is weighted heavily in favour of black and coloured lawyers, represented primarily by Nadel and the BLA.
Van Vuuren said: “We had to persuade our constituents that, in the interests of the profession, we had to give [lawyers of colour] 10 seats [out of 20] on the council.”
This caused bitter in-fighting between conservatives and modernisers in some provincial Bars.
The new body has been welcomed by lawyers outside South Africa. Desmond Fernando, president of the International Bar Association, said: “A united legal profession will play a leading role defining realistic objectives for change, framing necessary legislation and ensuring implementation with justice for all sections of society within the rule of law.”