South African firm's offices reduced to ‘rubble and ash’ as legal community condemns unrest

KwaZulu-Natal firm is among impacted businesses as top law firms rally to support ‘rule of law’
Durban, South Africa, 15 July 2021. A warehouse lies entirely burnt in the aftermath of violent protests that passed through the industrial area north of the city

The remains of a warehouse in Durban Gareth_Bargate, Shutterstock

South Africa’s legal community is responding to the ongoing civil unrest that has seized the country for the past two weeks, leading to the destruction of one law firm’s offices in a blaze started by rioters.

The premises of eight-lawyer Singh & Gharbaharan, which is based in Scottburgh on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal, was gutted by fire last week, making it one of hundreds of small businesses directly affected by the violence sparked by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma after he refused to comply with a corruption investigation. 

In a LinkedIn post that elicited dozens of messages of support, candidate attorney Shekhar Sook said the building ‘had been reduced to rubble and ash’, testing his faith in the legal system. Name partner Preeth Singh, however, revealed today that the firm had set itself up in new premises and thanked the local community for its support.

What initially began as protests escalated into deadly violence, including instances of arson and public looting, across Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal and the province of Gauteng, which houses South Africa’s largest city and business hub Johannesburg. 

Christo Els, senior partner at Johannesburg-based Webber Wentzel, said in a statement that the firm was "deeply concerned" about the violence and the “erosion of the rule of law”. 

“Perpetrators of this conduct must be apprehended and prosecuted, and we must all play our part in ensuring that they are held accountable,” he said. 

“The rule of law is the very foundation of our constitutional democracy. Everyone must do what they can to ensure it is upheld, recognising that the sustainability of all our society fundamentally depends on the adherence to the rule of law.”

Els added that while the violence was “disheartening” and “contributes to the significant social and economic challenges” South Africa already faces, the country and its people have “incredible resilience and the ability to rebuild”.  

Alan Keep, managing partner at Bowmans, told that lawyers in the firm’s Durban office have been supporting the surrounding community on a pro bono basis, including “giving advice on how property owners could protect their property lawfully, and assisting with insurance claims for the damaged properties.” 

Affected businesses, meanwhile, are asking whether force majeure clauses can come into play.

Webber Wentzel partner Michael Straeuli and associate Dominic Harris wrote: “Whilst it is correct to associate force majeure with natural disasters, the concept also covers a wide range of events, including public riots, strikes, sabotage, national crises and, in certain cases, the declaration of a state of emergency.”

They added: “Importantly, each force majeure clause is different and, while some clauses are more substantial than others, it is often industry practice to include events, such as public riots and strikes, in the list of what would constitute a force majeure event in a contract.”

Many employees have been unable to reach their workplaces due to the disruptions caused by the riots, while others have been forced to shut down in order to protect their workforces from attacks. 

Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, one of South Africa’s largest full-service law firms, said that businesses still have a duty to pay employees that refuse to attend an unsafe workplace until it is safe to do so under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. 

The Act ‘places a duty’ on employees “to provide and maintain, as far as reasonably practicable, a safe working environment and to enforce such measures as may be necessary in the interest of health and safety”, the firm told BusinessTech.

“This would include not subjecting employees to workplaces where the risk of being attacked during civil unrest is imminent. Where possible, the parties may, as an alternative, agree to a remote working arrangement while the unrest persists.”

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