Aug. 27th: A visit to the South African Constitutional Court and meeting a former Justice

The ancients believed that the body is the temple of the soul. This is true both in the sense that the body houses the soul, and also that how we treat our bodies often indicates how we feel about ourselves. Similarly, a country's public buildings often speak to its values, as well as its history. The neoclassicism of Washington DC evokes the democratic values America inherited from ancient Greece and Rome. The transparent dome of the German Reichstag transforms a building associated with monarchy and dictatorship into a potent symbol of a restored democracy.

South Africa's Constitutional Court, Johannesburg

On a recent visit to South Africa, our ACCESS group had the opportunity to visit the country's Constitutional Court in Johannesburg -- one of the most moving public spaces I have ever encountered. The Court building is built at the site of an apartheid-era prison that housed political dissidents and activists. Parts of the original structure remain, and the court chamber itself is constructed from bricks that once formed the prison's walls.

The interior of the Court has architectural elements borrowed from Western courtroom design such as a bench for judges, facing podia for counsel and a center lectern from which counsel address the judges. In addition, the Court incorporates traditional African elements, including an animal skin patterned carpet and -- most strikingly -- tanned cowhides draped over the Justices' bench, with an individual hide for each justice. The dual traditions create the amazing effect of feeling that one is simultaneously in a Western courtroom and sitting under a tree in the Savannah with tribal elders. The diverse elements work together to create this effect, which is especially powerful in light of a history in which Western law was for centuries used as a tool of oppression.

In the courtroom wall that separates the chamber from the street, a narrow eye level window allows people inside to see out into the street, but only at the level of the knees of the passing pedestrians. Thus, the motion of the people is visible, but not their race -- South Africa's take on blind justice; here, justice is not blind, she can see the people, their speed, cadence and direction, but their race is invisible, thus presenting the ideal of a color-blind society.

Our visit to the Court came a few days after meeting one of its distinguished former Justices in Cape Town: The Honorable Albie Sachs who served from 1994-2009. Justice Sachs, who is white and Jewish, worked for decades as an anti-apartheid activist, and lost his right arm to a car bomb set by agents of the apartheid government. He spoke of many subjects and, in response to a query from a member of our group, discussed the most challenging case he had decided as a judge. The case (Grootboom) involved an action for eviction brought by white landowners against poor blacks who were unlawfully squatting on their property. In finding a solution, Justice Sachs' found a way to protect the property rights of the owners while respecting the human rights of the squatters. A maimed body sheltering a courageous and wise soul.

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