In the Gallery

by Grethe Koen

As a journalism intern at the Wits Justice Project, some of my weekly duties include sitting in on court hearings, usually at the Johannesburg District Court. Navigating the who’s and what’s of court is a daunting process; those with the Harry Potter robes are too busy to tell you what’s going on, and those who stand accused usually don’t know either.

While I have learned that the angry one in front is the magistrate, the scared one in the booth (or dock) the accused and the snarky one on the podium the prosecutor, more recently my gaze has turned to those I sit among- those in the court gallery.

Every court has a partition of hard wooden benches reserved for the public and media to observe court proceedings. Should you care to sit long enough in court, (or be bored enough during the defence’s uhming and ah-ing to look around) you will start noticing the usual members of this esteemed area. Allow me to introduce them.

First off you will find those accused out on bail, there to observe their court dates. Their sole mission is to make their faces appear as blank and blameless as possible when they are called to the dock, so that their very countenance does not incite the Magistrate to order them shackled and dragged into the abysmal court cells below.

Then there are the accused’s relatives and friends. They either sit clutching handbags and tissues, fearful for their sons who have been caught peddling that damn pappegaai slaai again, or leaning back with crossed arms, ready to whup the ass of the child who puts their mother through such grief.

And then there are those I call ‘The Voyeurs.’ They usually have no relation to any of the accused, and in fact, have no real reason to be there. They come perhaps to behold the law in action, to observe divine dignity being served by the scales of justice, or because their TV licenses have run out.

The Voyeurs will sit through hours of court proceedings, riveted by a line-up of rape and murder. They nod wisely when the prosecutor cross-examines; put on grave faces when the Magistrate chastises and shoot angry glances when some one’s cell phone goes off during proceedings.

A cell-phone going off is no laughing matter. In fact, unsurprisingly, humour in those austere halls is rare to find. When it can be found, though, it is dry and delicious. Two days ago in Randburg court I sat in on a bail application for two accused of possessing illegal substances. Lawyer Number One noted to the Magistrate “Your Honour, I am acting on behalf of my handsome client over there, accused one.”

The magistrate replied with a flicker of a smile; “Sir I find it interesting that you commented on his appearance as the court does not take note of these things. Our faces are all equal before the court.” Then, turning to Lawyer Number Two “Would you like to say anything about the appearance of your client?”

Lawyer Number Two looked quite abashed: “Erm…yes, Your Honour my client is also very attractive.”

The court orderlies shot angry glances at the snickering crowd.

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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.

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