The doors of judiciary's closed ceremonies shall be opened

An historic event: the first sitting in the brand-new main court of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), attended by the lords and ladies of the law—not to mention South Africa’s leading justice officials. So what was I doing in a marquee outside, mixing it up with other hacks, bodyguards and drivers?

Turns out that the ceremony was “closed” to the media, but reporters could attend the subsequent official opening at the nearby Sand du Plessis Theatre. I was informed of these arrangements the night before, when I asked for details of the programme, but I didn’t believe it could be true. So, when the judges were called into the new court for the opening session, I joined the spouses and partners in the public benches. Ten minutes later a polite justice department official asked me to leave—surely the first time in the long history of the appeal court in Bloemfontein that the media was barred from a sitting of its judges.

What was the reason? Not space, for at least a third of the seats in the public gallery were empty when I was asked to go. As a result, however, I had only a fleeting impression of the courtroom. The public has contributed R101-million to the new wing housing this court, and might therefore like to know how the money was spent, but I can’t report even such basic information as whether the acoustics are any better than in the old main court.

I noticed the new place was grand and spacious; that the chief justice and his deputy were present along with a number of other judges of the Constitutional Court, judges president from other divisions and most of the SCA bench. I also noticed that the ministerial party arrived late, after the deputy president of the SCA, Louis Harms, had begun his official welcome. They had barely taken their seats and Harms had barely resumed his address when I was asked to leave.

So what exactly went on for the next hour? Secret rites? Blood oaths? Mysterious handshakes? Or perhaps SCA president Lex Mpati told Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng: “You get the power; we get the velvet, the rare wood panelling, the tradition. Eat your heart out.” From my position outside the court, all I can say with certainty is that there were neither hymns nor incense.

It does seem bizarre that the same people who initiated a very public means of judicial selection as a necessary requirement of the Constitution should design or even tolerate a closed judicial ceremonial session. Insensitive, too; for this is a time when the media, under serious threat from government, looks to the courts for even-handed maintaining of constitutional principles. Or should the decision to keep the media out of the court convey a more sinister message about the judiciary’s views on free speech?

Last year saw the centenary of the appeal court but no official event marked the occasion (a private lunch organised by the judges hardly counts). This struck me at the time as something of a slight by the department.

According to the “event objectives” listed by the department of justice and constitutional development for last week’s inauguration, the opening of the new building was an opportunity to “increase awareness about the services offered by the Supreme Court of Appeal”, to “remember and embrace the retired judges who previously served in this court”, to “mobilise stakeholder support”, to demonstrate “commitment, honesty, accountability, transparency and capability”—and to “celebrate the 101 anniversary, share historical experiences and achievements”. An odd anniversary to mark, I thought, given that the centenary passed without comment, unless this ceremony was intended to make amends.

The idea of “sharing of historical experiences” caused Justice Minister Jeff Radebe some practical difficulties. Speaking with the fluency and confidence that only a teleprompter can provide, he stressed the court’s less-than-heroic performance in defence of human rights under apartheid. Then he tried some light relief in the form of a lengthy story about an incident in the court’s history, recounted on its website. Guests had heard it all not five minutes earlier, in the introductory remarks of Radebe’s deputy, Andries Nel. But the minister, apparently a prisoner to his teleprompter, just kept going, and those extracts from court records became increasingly familiar.

By the end of all the official speeches about a new era of constitutionally required openness and accountability, had the irony registered? You have to wonder whether the organisers of the “closed” event in Court A realised the fine way—and the perfect occasion—they had chosen to show those principles in action.

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