Richard Spoor: “I do, what I do less because I care about justice than because I hate injustice.”
Google ‘Richard Spoor’ and screeds of text fill the screen, the clearest explanation coming from the horse’s mouth, Richard Spoor Inc. Attorneys (www. goldminersilicosis.co.za)
Richard Spoor is a South African activist and human rights attorney based in White River Mpumalanga who has more than 25 years of experience in complex litigation. A pioneer throughout the past 20 years in the fight for workers’ rights and safety, Spoor has become what The American Lawyer called the “bête noir” of the South Africa Mining Industry because of his unwavering commitment to holding mining companies accountable for their alleged ill treatment of workers, who are some of the country’s most underprivileged citizens.
OK, that’s the public face but who is Richard Spoor, the husband, the father and the man we see about town either in his plane or driving his tractor? With the aid of Estelle de Villiers, his right hand woman, We Are White River tied Richard down to reveal a glimpse into what lies behind this remarkable facade.
Richard graduated from UCT in 1983 with an affinity for human rights, practicing in public interest law ever since. He, wife Georgie and their three sons moved to White River in 1994 because it drew them as a great place to raise their children. The boys have now grown up but 15 year old ‘laat lammetjie’ Leilah keeps the home busy. The Spoors are exceedingly happy in White River and have no plans to leave, Richard commuting to his office in Johannesburg for one of his three passions, work. Leaving the other two, flying and laughter, for the Lowveld!
It may surprise you to learn that this tenacious defender of the oppressed loathes playing competitive sports and games. For Richard, the joy of winning is wiped out by watching the loser’s distress, a reaction, perhaps, to his parents’ experience in Nazi occupied Holland and his childhood exposure to Holocaust refugees who’d lost their entire families. “A person with a healthy self-esteem doesn’t need to prove anything to himself or to others” he remarks.
Having a strong aversion to conflict makes his career choice a strange one, but it may be central to his success. Richard has deliberately cultivated a reputation for himself as a person who is great to seek a solution with, but a really bad person to fight. He’s always looking to find an amicable and just resolution, avoiding litigation, while his greatest victories have been achieved through settlement and accommodation.
He considers himself fortunate to be free to do the work that he likes to do – giving advice. People go to him for help and advice, and if they don’t like what they hear, it’s clear to him that there is no trust. To Richard, trust is the foundation of the attorney client relationship.
The biggest case of his career (and possibly the largest case in South African legal history) is the gold miners’ silicosis case. The issue of lung disease in gold miners has occupied his time for nearly 20 years. In 2005 he travelled to Lesotho and the Eastern Cape to look for a good test case but it took six years just to establish the right of former goldminers to claim damages, then an additional five years to get court approval for the class action mechanism to try the case. “I expect it will be another few years before the matter is finally resolved. There are ongoing discussions between the parties around settlement but the negotiations are complex and difficult. There is still a long road to walk before we can achieve some modicum of justice for sick mineworkers.”
Meanwhile, We Are delighted to say it took considerably less time to award this legal giant of White River a White River Star!