Voices from NYSBA Global: Ulrich Fobian

By International Section

July 28, 2020

Voices from NYSBA Global: Ulrich Fobian


By International Section

Opening Address (adapted version) by Ulrich Fobian during the Human Rights Plenary, delivered on November 8, 2019 at the New York State Bar Associations’s Conference in Tokyo.

I am white.


(I am white)

I am South African.


(I am South African)

I am a beneficiary of a singular and exclusive society.

I was born in 1987 and in many respects, I grew up in the dawn of a new South Africa, a scared South Africa, on an unknown path towards inclusion and diversity. From a country previously run by a minority to a country, for the first time, run by people of colour. By the majority.

I was at a talk recently where someone made a comment about the Maori people in New Zealand, and the injustices they face, and how one day there will be a “real issue” when the minority is the majority. In other words, the speaker emphasized that the discrimination against the Maori population could only continue while the majority of the population ruled over them. However let me remind you that the South African minority (under 20 percent) ran Apartheid for approximately 40 Years.

I started my schooling when Nelson Mandela became president. When a new Constitution was birthed, defining many of our successes over our still relatively short, but important democratic era. In a time when President Mandela went against advice received from his colleagues and supported rugby, a “white” sport. He did not simply support it. He celebrated the culture. Embraced it. And started a legacy that is still felt in our hearts today and which, we were reminded of when recently winning the World Cup again. That is why the rugby World Cup is so important to us as South Africans. That is why it is now a sport that pushes towards, although not without its barriers and prejudices, diversity and inclusion.

The South African Constitution begins with the following words:

We, the people of South Africa,

Recognise the injustices of our past;

Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;

Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and

Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

One of the current and most complex pieces of legislation, ever evolving in our country, is the law surrounding Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (“BBBEE”). It began with creating opportunities for people of colour and has now evolved into a complex point system ensuring South African previously disadvantaged persons obtain opportunities and ownership in corporations. It remains a difficult piece of legislation to interpret and explain to foreign companies conducting business in South Africa.

Where South Africa is run substantially, and formally, by the Rule of Law with the supremacy of the Constitution acknowledged at all levels, the situation in Japan is fascinating and complex in a different way. How this impacts on diversity is of extreme importance for both the Japanese and to those privileged enough to engage with Japan. On the surface (what can be referred to as “tatemae”) the rule of law is supreme, however, as we heard from the honourable Kunio Hamada Sensei yesterday in his brilliant keynote speech, substantially (what can be referred to as “hone”) is a well-known and well established set of cultural norms that still run business and often trump the codified law.

If we are to understand and engage in a discussion on diversity and inclusion in Japan we need to understand the complexities surrounding “hone” and “tatemae”.

Diversity is the acknowledgment that there is no “objective” normal. It is a realisation that we need to dissolve our subjective views that hold implicit bias, protected in the doldrums of our minds, and replace them with a celebration of diversity.

Inclusion is this outworking, the doing, the verb.


(Thank you for your attention).

Update from December 5, 2019:


It is an honor to update you on the initial progression of the newly established New York State Bar Association International Section South Africa Committee.

Since creation on November 5, just one month ago, we have already held our first meeting on November 26 (minutes attached) and are looking at how to implement a realistic and meaningful (both for NYSBA and South Africa) action plan for 2020.

At this stage we are aiming to reach out to various firms and persons in South Arica, or connected to the practice of law in South Africa, to raise NYSBA’s profile and build a support structure to soon host a conference in South Africa modeled after the success of other international chapters. We are encouraged by the energy of our Committee and welcome other ideas on ways we can improve to accomplish our goals on behalf of NYSBA.

We wish you a wonderful end of the year and thank you for the initial push and support you have provided in launching the South African Committee.

Warmest regards,

M Abrams, U Fobian, and D.L. Morriss

Six diverse people sitting holding signs
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