Today was our last class day – tomorrow we go on a mini-safari and Sunday I start the long trek back to the States. Although this trip has had its ups and downs – more on the upside, thankfully – I have really enjoyed my time in Johannesburg and feel truly blessed that I was able to come along on this trip.
Our two lectures this morning were on socio-economic rights and the right to health, which were both very interesting considering the national debate in the US (and impending United States Supreme Court decision) around universal healthcare. And then, in the afternoon, we went into downtown Joburg to visit the Magistrate’s Court…
It is amazing how formal their court system is here! No juries, so the judge is the “be all and end all.” Every individual has to bow to the judge when you enter the courtroom. While we, in the US, refer to our judges as “your honor,” South African Magistrate Judges are called “your worship.” All the attorneys wear black robes, just like the judges only without the judicial insignia embroidered on it. The participants are referred to as “madam prosecutor” or “mister accused” (although, they don’t call the accused that to his face…just refer to him like that while he’s sitting right there). And the witnesses still literally take “the stand” and have to stand in the elevated witness-box during their entire testimony.
I asked the prosecutor who was giving us the tour whether and how the courts were divided during apartheid – did whites and blacks have separate courthouses or courtrooms? Or did they just have separate seating sections within a given courtroom? All week we have been learning about how extreme the apartheid policies and laws were, gone on field trips to see exhibits illustrating the horrible effects of apartheid on whites and blacks alike, and heard from presenters on the lengths that the new government and courts have gone in order to remedy those old, deep national wounds. So it would make sense that the apartheid divide would be reflected in the courts as well.
But no, courts were the one place not segregated. The jails were and the holding cells were, and yes, most people charged with and brought to court were black (frequently charged with violating the laws that required blacks to carry a “passbook” at all times), and most attorneys and judges were white. But the courts themselves were not segregated. As an attorney and a die-hard (and yes, sometimes naive) believer in the essence of the rule of law, I smiled inside knowing that the physical reflection of the law – the courts – were essentially the only organ of government not corrupted by overt racial discrimination.
Tonight at dinner, I sat with a group of law students that I don’t usually spend time with. We got on the subject of travel and discovered that all of us have traveled quite a bit. Out of all of those trips to so many different countries, we all had to place our week in Johannesburg at the top of our respective lists – and I’m already plotting to come back to South Africa and see more of this incredibly interesting and complex country.