First impressions last

by Robyn Leslie

Courts are a fascinating place to observe South Africans and their attitudes, as one of our interns, Grethe Koen, recently wrote on her personal blog. I find the buildings equally interesting, each court house a testament to its past and the present.

Going to the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court is a strange mix of old and new. After your security check, you walk up the stairs into a wide, long foyer. There are large columns running down the length of the foyer – at first glance they appear to be of marble. Like a traditional maze, entrances, exits and passages extend off, right and left, and what appear to be old railway clocks hang from the ceiling – all showing different times, all wrong.

There is a gorgeous mix of dress: flowing black robes with gold piping flounce up and down stairs. Lurid purple shirts tucked into white-washed jeans meet Italian shoes to furnish a picture of wealth. I also see a man who borrowed his friend’s jacket for the occasion of standing before a magistrate – a family in disarray as the children don’t understand why they are here, and the parent is panicking to find the court of their partner. I see saris, burkqas, gardener’s overalls and finally understand why Woolworths has a footwear range entitled ‘court shoes’. I see school uniforms and ill-fitting security guard shirt-and-trousers. Takkies squeak on the floor damp from the rain outside making its way in on people’s umbrellas.

A sign hangs down, below a railway clock and above a tikkie-box, those coin-operated public phones. It reads something like ‘FIFA World Cup 2010 Court Waiting Room (dedicated)’ with an arrow. In March 2012, I can’t help but chuckle. Court rooms are to be found by following passages, taking stairs, opening doors and asking directions. The criminal section, in the basement, is particularly atmospheric: the old wooden fixtures; the door handle reminiscent of school classroom doors when it was still called ‘Form 6’; and the big, burly police man, guarding the door leading to the cells where those from prison have been transported to meet their trial dates. The picture is complete as he takes a big, square cut key that comes from a medieval movie set (think Dumas and the Count of Monte Cristo) to unlock and lock his captives away. The rain patters down and in through the basement windows as a man applying for bail nervously taps the dysfunctional microphone and eventually lapses into silence as the prosecutor talks over him.

Two floors up, and we’re in a different world. Behind the security doors and scanned access codes and cards lies the administrative upper-class. Here, the old wooden rooms look grand with their panelling – spacious instead of rickety. Polished tables creak when you lean on them, mirrored by imposing seats designed to make small people look undignified as their feet don’t touch the ground when they sit. It’s the same sash windows as in the basement, but they look out onto sky and buildings – not a concrete courtyard.

But regardless of what floor you are on, the sense of antiquity remains. Secretaries smile at me as I ask about electronic court management – ‘we work with paper’, they say, nervously. A magistrate nods his head in the direction of a trolley one expects desserts to be served on in old-school hotels. It contains over six boxes of paper, bursting and overflowing as lids won’t sit properly on their load. ‘That’s my case for this afternoon’. It seems that legislation governing the use of scanning and electronic evidence management has yet to be designed. And as another magistrate tells me, in a voice full of acceptance at the perversity of crime and the law governing it – ‘evidence is not always electronically appropriate – how would you scan a gun?’

In this courthouse, words like biometrics and electronics smack of a future they have yet to see. As I make my way out, I get lost again and ask for directions. A passing clerk explains – ‘carry on straight, take the first stairs to your right and when you see the man restoring that old oil painting, that’s the ground floor’.

In mild disbelief at the priorities of courthouse improvement, I nod at the painter doing the delicate work as I pass by and out through the doors. My mind a confusion of stately elegance and stark decrepitude, I wonder if the Soweto magistrate’s court, my next stop, will conjure the same feeling.

Find out on Wednesday 28 March, when I blog next.

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About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

2 Responses to First impressions last

  1. Pingback: First Impressions Last « Robyn Leslie

  2. fivesides7 says:

    Well observed and very well written!

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