Spoor: Sa Mining's Bête Noire Allan SeccombePublished by MAC on 2006-07-06
Spoor: SA mining's bête noire Allan Seccombe
6th July 2006
THE air around Richard Spoor’s head is blue – but it’s not cigarette smoke. That’s a habit he quit some time ago. Spoor, the 46-year-old arch-nemesis of South African mining companies and partner at Spoor, Noble & Ntuli, labels himself as just a countryside lawyer. But it’s easy to see beneath the steady stream of profanity – which quickens when he’s making a point – there lies a steely and passionate determination to bring the world to order.
A mining executive, who declined to be named, says: “I’ve met him and he certainly seems to be a man on a mission.” Others in the mining industry don’t want to make any comment at all.
There was an irony about Spoor being a smoker and yet throwing himself into legal cases to win reparations for resources sector workers who have had lungs and lives damaged by working underground or in factories.
He made a name for himself by winning damages for 1,600 workers whose lungs were irreparably damaged by asbestos mining by the former mining house Gencor and Gefco.
In March 2003, Gencor had to pay R448m into the Asbestos Relief Trust, from which payments would be made to victims over 25 years. It was labelled as the biggest payout of its kind in SA’s history and the first time black workers won a compensation claim against their employers.
Spoor, who grew up in Sasolburg, the ultra-conservative town that was the showcase of Afrikaner industrialism in the apartheid era and who later served in the army in the fight against Namibian independence, draws inspiration from an American lawyer Clarence Darrow.
Darrow, who died in 1938, defended the poor and downtrodden. One of his most famous cases was the 1925 defence of teaching evolution in schools in the US. “For him it was a time of class conflict so intense as to border on class warfare,” writes Douglas Linder, a Missouri University law professor.
Spoor tries to downplay any sense you might get that he sees his role as something similar. He tries to pass himself off as a simple country lawyer who looks for the easier cases that he’s certain can be won. But his emotions burst to the surface and show what really drives him.
“I’m a liberal. It astonishes me how liberal values are decried,” he says, his voice rising. “What is liberalism? It’s about tolerance, respect and humanity. These are good and fine values. These are values I have.”
These values lie at the root of what he does, more than any desire to be seen as the white knight and defender of the voiceless and powerless who have been trampled in the corporate profit stampede.
“If anything, I’m motivated more by the desire to punish the evil bastards than to do good – to punish them for what they’ve done. How dare they do what they’ve done? It’s not so much doing good – that’s a by-product – it’s the pleasure of punishing some of them, making them sweat and embarrassing them.”
His passion for rectifying and punishing wrongs lies in the petrochemical, mining and metal refining sectors, where workers’ health is most affected. Spoor reckons he’s been able to collect R700m for workers rendered sick or injured from their work environments. That would be on top of what South Africa’s Compensation Commission has already paid out.
Under South African laws workers may not sue their employers for injuries or disabilities sustained at work, something that irks Spoor no end. He blames workers’ compensation laws that are nearly 60 years’ old and century-old laws governing respiratory diseases for the “glaring injustices” inflicted on workers and the knock on effect that has on impoverishing communities from which these workers are drawn and later sent home to.
“The effect of that legislation is to pass costs of occupational injuries and diseases on to workers, their families and communities. The compensation legislation is a mechanism for companies to externalise costs,” says Spoor.
For example, the asbestos industry generated enormous profits between the end of the Second World War and the Seventies. “In hindsight, we can see those profits were illusory. There’s an enormous environmental cost. An enormous cost is born by the workers, their families and the neighbouring communities. The country as a whole is worse off and unhealthier than if we didn’t have asbestos mining at all.”
He argues that there’s a clear correlation between particularly impoverished and underdeveloped rural communities that provide labour to South Africa’s mines and the profits made by the mining industry. That would stem from the burden these communities have to bear from caring for diseased, injured and disabled workers that have returned home.
Spoor’s next big assault on corporate South Africa – apart from the highly publicised attack on Anglo Platinum and their relations with a community – is tackling the gold industry with regard to operational lung disease.
“Victims are being erased by time. Every day companies’ liabilities shrink.”
“Richard looks backwards at what’s happened. We as an industry have to look forward and see how to prevent that kind of thing,” says the mining executive.
For example, AngloGold Ashanti has laid out in successive reports the way it’s trying to reduce workers’ exposure to silicate dust that causes the debilitating lung disease of silicosis.
Says Spoor: “The strategy I have is to be a really unpleasant person to fight with but a very credible and reliable person to do a deal with. It’s paid off with Gencor, Sasol, Xstrata and others.
“I’ve recently done a very nice little deal with Samancor. I hope in the next year we’ll be able to do some more deals with Samancor to the benefit of sick and injured workers.”
Spoor hasn’t been a person to sit back and let what he perceives as wrongs to slide past him. He was a classic thorn in the then government’s side in the Eighties when the struggle against it reached such a pitch that a state of emergency was declared. He acted for an ANC member on Death Row, he worked with civic organisations to oppose mass evictions by clogging up the legal process and helped black South Africans circumvent pass laws to live in Cape Town.
His first brush with corporate South Africa was a disaster and was probably the catalyst for his stance towards the mining industry. Spoor spent a year with Gold Fields of SA (GFSA) in 1984 before he was told to leave. He had a bursary from GFSA and was doing work with their industrial relations department. The National Union of Mineworkers had been launched in 1982.
“At the time I was a pretty far left sympathiser. I’d breached my employer’s confidence on many occasions, obtaining confidential information from the Chamber of Mines and Gold Fields (of SA) and leaking it to the unions,” Spoor says.
However, it was his presence at an unlawful strike at Randfontein Estates that led to his dismissal. “Rightly so. I really had breached their confidence. It gave me an insight into the ugliest corporate culture that existed. We were involved ordering workers by tribe: so many Zulus, so many Pedis. It was monstrous. I’ve always had a great interest in mining. It’s just a terrain where the abuses were so gross.”
Spoor now faces a different, altogether more personal, battle. He has to save his career. His bete noir – Anglo American – has filed charges of unprofessional and unworthy conduct against him with the Law Society, an attorney watchdog body, after an interaction with South Africa’s largest company over their subsidiary Highveld Steel.
Spoor says: “It’s a deliberate effort on their part to stain my integrity. If I’m convicted of unprofessional conduct it will be a devastating blow. It’s based on my conduct during an enquiry, where I accused them of racism and alleged they were not interested in the health and lives of their workers.”
Anglo American had not commented at the time of publication. The case was to have been heard on 13 May but it has been postponed to a future date. At the very worst Spoor could be struck off the attorneys’ roll and be unable to practice. That’s reserved for gross misconduct.
Spoor, as a senior attorney, was about to chair a disciplinary hearing shortly before his own hearing, but he recused himself.
Says Spoor: “I say the complaint is defective and is inappropriate. I’ve done my damndest to get the charges withdrawn and get them to back off. But they refuse. I’ve been told they’re going to bring defamation cases against me.”