“A Beacon of Light”: The Constitutional Court of South Africa

Nelson Mandela described the New Constitutional Court Building in South Africa as  “A Beacon of Light.”

One of the plaques at the Building is a quote from Nelson Mandela’s speech at the Rivonia Treason Trial 1963-1964 in which leaders of the ANC were tried for sabotage.

Plaque Nelson Mandela Quote

“This is the struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society, in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if needs be, my Lord, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Thenjiwe Mtintso* was an African woman who grew up in a township and was detained in Number Four Prison of the Old Fort in the apartheid era. When the new Constitutional Court building was being planned on the same site she maintained that it should have black women in mind.  What did biology have to do with it?

She says that in describing a court under the old regime those women would have used words such as injustice, exclusion, marginalisation, dehumanisation, humiliation, fear, repulsion, rejection, distrust etc. “The court, I felt, had to reassure, protect and give women a sense of security if it was about the protection of constitutional rights. The beginning was the building itself; the face of the Court. That had to be an invitation to women – particularly black, poor and rural women – to come in and talk.”

Joseph Ndlovu "Huddle"
Joseph Ndlovu, “Huddle”

Why were women the litmus test? Because: “If it works for women, particularly black, poor, rural women, then it works for all.”  The Court had to physically show the return of their dignity. It had to shout to everyone that it was about the rights of all. As a friend it had to laugh and if needs be cry with them.

It had to even in its form, guarantee protection, inclusion, accessibility, warmth and friendship. It had to offer an opportunity to sit, observe and participate.”

From a prison in one of the most repressive regimes in the world, this is what was amply achieved in its architecture and the ethos that was created around the new Constitutional Court in South Africa.

Justice is fundamentally structural.

* Former deputy secretary-general of the ANC and now SA’s ambassador to Italy

For more about the Constitutional Court of South Africa http://www.constitutionalcourt.org.za/site/thecourt/thebuilding.htm

Art Works of the Constitutional Court of South Africa http://concourt.artvault.co.za/index.php?cid=355&pg=12&ob=artists.sname&od=0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *