by Jeffery Wheat
The guy who taught me how to be a lawyer was something of a legend. His name was Barry Whitter. My wife’s grandparents had been some of his earliest friends and clients from the days he was starting out. He took me under his wing. His office was in a near century old building in the heart of Johannesburg with a vast cavernous space filled with beautiful dusty old legal volumes.
He’d been a diplomat before becoming an attorney. He represented South Africa in pre-revolutionary Iran; his wife Ansie learned Persian. He was the most universally respected man I’ve ever known. His name opened doors. Even today, the few Google results which pop up with his name on it are from battles he had with the likes of Jackie Selebi’s buddies and the Minister of Defence and Minister of Safety and Security. He stood up for what he thought was right, which included refusing to enter townships in South Africa while serving in the military. Just imagine the courage of such a man.
The most important thing he taught me about was noblesse oblige. He cared deeply about the plight of ordinary people, and he used his position to help them. He was well-known throughout his community as an active Rotarian, but he was also on a first name basis with the SAPS station commanders in Joburg.
When we first met, I just thought he was mercurial, but I was wrong. He was a consummate actor. Being mercurial was just one of his “acts”. He could grovel, beg, plead, command, or push back tears if he needed to. These were his tools. He burst into song once while consulting with a client, “Ek kan doen met ‘n miljoen”. I once saw him in the most friendly and familiar manner cross-examine a police witness, and one-by-one draw back the veils, and by the time the witness had realized what happened, it was just too late. The witness was a police detective, but Mr. Whitter still trapped him.
He really was very good.