One of the unexpected things about my being here is that it gives me some deep insights into the stupid way some things are done back home. In development circles this is called ‘reverse development’. This is where the first world recognises that just maybe it has something to learn from developing countries. This draws a blank expression from most Westerners I’ve met. An expression that says, ‘What can we possibly learn from these natives?’ Most days I find something that UK society could usefully learn from SA. Today, I learned that justice must be seen to be inclusive, open and participatory. I can imagine some bland politician espousing just my point, but today I got proof that this isn’t just a collection of on-message words; this nation is actively pursuing that ideal.
I went on a tour of Constitution Hill. Constitution Hill was originally a horrendous prison in the middle of Joburg, which did unspeakable things to many political and common criminals in SA, including Ghandi. It closed in 1983. Over the past 10 or so years, the new constitutional court has been built on the site of the prison, and many of the old prison buildings have been incorporated into it.
So it was grim beyond belief to tour around the old prison. But then, the bit which I found almost shocking, you get to wander into the newly built Constitutional Court. In you go, through the doors, and there it is – the highest court in the land. And you just wander in and round the court. I went up to where the 11 constitutional judges sit and swung around on their swivel seats – the guide didn’t bat an eyelid. It’s a light and airy place, with low windows so that people can look in at the proceedings from outside. No pomp. No wigs. No nervy security guys. No class bollocks. The court wishes to be a place of the people. I cannot in my wildest dreams imagine being allowed to frolic around our High Court at home. Apart from the fact that I may of course be a dreaded terrorist, everybody would be worried that some 300 year old artifact might break (like maybe one of the judges). Heritage feels like a burden. Here’s a picture of the court and of my sitting in the judge’s chair.
The foyer is called ‘Justice Under the Tree’. It emulates the tradition of people meeting under a tree to solve their disputes. There are pillars rising up to mimic shoots, the chandeliers are made like branches with leaves, and there are huge windows and lots of light to make the space open, like it would be under a tree. Here’s a pic:
Having frolicked in that court, it seems so obvious that the citizens of a country should be allowed and encouraged to wander in, run up and down the steps and swivel on the chairs. A court belongs to its people, and that court was so much richer for its humanity. And I won’t indulge that stoooopid terrorist argument. Anyone who doesn’t realize that the terrorist card is just a means of mass control needs to go on an urgent voyage of life-discovery or otherwise lead a life imprisoned by false fears. One of my favourite tit-bits: ‘A life lived in fear is a life lived by half.’