Cake and the Criminal Justice System with Margie Orford

margie orford

Eating cake and discussing the criminal justice system with an acclaimed author is just one of the many perks of my new-found post as intern at the Wits Justice Project. Margie Orford, dubbed the ‘Queen of South African crime thriller writers’ met with the Wits Justice Project today to discuss her work and the motivation that has informed her curiosity with all things related to the criminal justice system.

She began by telling us about a Judge in America who was recently sentenced to 28 years in prison after earning $2 million for sending black children to jail. The more children imprisoned, the more profit the owners of the privately run prison earned. I realised in an instant that the age-old adage ‘stranger than fiction’ really does ring true.

Orford, an award winning author and journalist, struggled to come to terms with a violent South Africa upon returning after a period of studying abroad. I can relate to this as during my recent three months backpacking through East Africa, I was frequently told that South Africa is a ‘gangster’s paradise’. Her desire to delve deeper into the murky underbelly of South African violence in an attempt to ascertain why violence in South Africa is so pervasive has become the driving force behind her over a decade long career as a published author. Orford says “we have to find a way to understand what happened and why in order to find a way to pick up the broken threads of meaning in the aftermath of violence in order to stitch together a shared social fabric”.

We discovered that an average day in the life of Margie Orford can currently consist of hours spent in morgues pouring over corpses that are at times so stacked up they look like “old fish fingers in a student freezer” – a visual metaphor I’m all too familiar with from my not too distant past as a Rhodes journalism student, scraping R5 coins together for weekly groceries.

Given the bad rap that SAPS has been receiving in the media recently, I found it encouraging that Orford – who has fostered a close relationship with SAPS over the years – says events like the Marikana Massacre have actually motivated certain police officials to work extra hard at their jobs of upholding justice.

I was impressed by how Orford’s integrity has served her so well in her interaction with sources. She has also benefited from being allowed access in the past to prisons – most notably during a year-long writing workshop in which she mentored fifteen maximum security inmates at Victor Verster prison in the Western Cape. I’m eager to read her novel, Fifteen Men, on the topic.

Researching Orford more after our cake encounter I found an article for The Guardian, in which Orford shares a telling farewell poem that one of the writing workshop participants at Victor Verster wrote for her “I am / A book with a damaged cover, but what is / Written between the lines could save a country / From a disaster”. Insightful words.

I was also inspired by Orford’s evident love of what she does. Instead of becoming despondent or burnt out by a complex criminal justice system and staring at corpses in morgues, she attacks stories with fervour, determined to make sense of the South Africa we currently find ourselves in. If this is just week one at the Wits Justice Project for me, I eagerly await more insightful talks and explorations into the South African criminal justice system. Though, I fear my new colleagues have set a bad precedent by bringing cake to two meetings over the course of just one week – I’m not complaining though!


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

One Response to Cake and the Criminal Justice System with Margie Orford

  1. Pingback: Margie Orford Discusses Attempting to Make Sense of Violence in South Africa Through Writing | Jonathan Ball

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