By Katie Jean Fernelius
The new South Africa is just now creeping into its third decade. It’s understandable that certain values from the past persist and at times chafe against new ones. The Constitutional Court has inherited the task to of bringing into being one of the most dynamic constitutions in the world not just through adjudication, but also through translation.
What do I mean by translation?
It’s not necessarily the kind that can be found through Duolingo. I’m using “translation” to mean a process of making the Constitution accessible by interpreting its meaning into different mediums. Not everyone is inclined to appreciate or even understand the legalese of the Constitution itself. In fact, the words may be inaccessible to people who’ve only experienced injustice. To them, the language is not only inaccessible, but oppressive.
Therefore, the task of translation is not just about accessibility, but also about conveying the Constitution’s meaning. Many people can come to better understand the Constitution by seeing an interpretation of the law, whether through a piece of art, a poem, or even architecture. The space of the Constitutional Court has become a key part of translation.
The Court itself is built on three old prisons: the Fort prison, Section Four and Five, and the women’s prison. In building on top of such a site and incorporating elements of the prisons into the new building, like the cell wall bricks, the Constitutional Court hoped to create an environment steeped in history in which justices would always be cognizant of past injustices of the nation.
The architecture of the new court that goes with the old bricks is a stark contrast. There are large glass panels, colorful pillars, and an atrium-like ceiling. The theme is “justice under the tree.” From inside the court, the light dapples to the floor as if sprinkling through branches. The construction of the court in this way seeks to emulate the values of transparency, community, and openness.
Beyond the architecture of the court itself, the court itself as well as the offices of the justices, clerks, administrators, guards, and janitors are filled to the brim with art. Most was donated. There are pieces from around the world: tapestries and statues, paintings and mobiles, political cartoons and photography. Anyone visiting the court will not just be able to
see the court, but will interact with its values reflected in the art.
I most enjoy the quilts and tapestries. Quilting and tapestry-weaving are traditionally domestic activities performed by women in South Africa. To me, the inclusion of domestic art shows that the court represents all South African citizens—both male and female, rich and poor, urban and rural. In the room where the justices discuss their decisions hang quilted panels made by former prisoners of the women’s prison. In other words, the justices are surrounded by stitched perspectives of women who were marginalized by the legal system. Through being surrounded by all of the art, particularly that of historically marginalized people, the justices continually confront the voices of those they are entrusted to protect.
The space of the Constitutional Court is not just where citizens can come to know the constitution, but also where workers within the Constitutional Court, justices and janitors alike, are reminded of its values.
The challenge is how to move beyond the space to translate this constitution to those who cannot travel to Johannesburg, who might never have a case to bring to the Constitutional Court, who feel like the law does not apply to or provide for them. This is where Professor Admay and I come in. Our project is about documenting the court, its art, and its inhabitants—tourists, justices, security guards, and all—and creating an accessible, multimedia web space for those who cannot travel to the court and experience its values in translation.
This task certainly requires a mindful approach, but my hope is to create a space that can be representative of all the voices of the court, particularly the voices that don’t traditionally get platforms to be heard: the cleaner who sings in the Court’s choir, the man in a wheelchair who has to take a side entrance into the courtroom, and the women who travel for miles to witness a court decision that isn’t even expressed in their own language. Profess Admay and I believe that this is how a constitution is realized, by making the law not just relevant and responsible, but representative of those its serves.