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Rubino Law visits Constitutional Court of South Africa in Johannesburg


Today, while on vacation, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the Constitutional Court of South Africa which is located in Johannesburg .  The court is the highest court in South Africa regarding constitutional matters.  It would be the equivalent of the United States Supreme Court.  The actual courthouse was a beautiful, open and airy building.  The courthouse is open to the public 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.  The court also has a very impressive art collection which houses works from many famous South African artists.

The Creation of the Constitutional Court

The Constitutional Court of South Africa was established in 1994 by South Africa’s first democratic constitution which was called the Interim Constitution of 1993.  The court began its first sessions in February 1995.  The location of the court was moved in February 2004, to Constitution Hill in Johannesburg upon the completion of the current courthouse.  The Constitutional Court consists of 11 judges, headed by a Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice.  Currently eight of the judges are men and three are women.  The judge’s duty is to uphold the law and the constitution, which they must apply impartially and without fear, favour or prejudice.

The constitution requires that a matter before the court be heard by at least eight judges. In practice, all eleven judges hear almost every case.  If any judge is absent for a long period or a vacancy arises, an acting judge may be appointed by the President of the Republic on a temporary basis on the recommendation of the Minister of Justice acting with the concurrence of the Chief Justice.  Decisions of the Court are reached by majority vote of the judges sitting in a case and each judge must indicate his or her decision.  The reasons for the decision are then published in a written judgment.

The Building (from the Constitutional Court website)

The Constitutional Court was designed to reflect the values of South Africa’s new constitutional democracy.  The building is noted for its transparency and entrancing volumes.  In contrast to most courts, it is welcoming rather than forbidding, filled with sparkle and warmth.  It has no marble cladding or wood paneling, but has come to be admired for its graceful proportions.  The principal materials – timber, concrete, steel, glass and black slate – infuse the court with an African feel.

The foyer of the Court is a spacious, light-filled area punctuated by slanting columns, an architectural metaphor for trees under which African villagers traditionally resolved their legal disputes. On the columns are mosaics – blue, green, orange and red. In keeping with this metaphor, the concrete roof has slots designed to create moving areas akin to dappled sunlight filtering through leaves.

The roof’s concrete beams are inscribed with the words ”human dignity, equality and freedom” in samples of the handwriting of each of the judges incumbent during the building of the court.

The foyer includes a curved wall containing 512 stained-glass windows. The timber door to the foyer, a 9m-high work of art, features plaques carved with words and sign-language symbols conveying the 27 rights enshrined in the Constitution.

The court chamber is more austere and has a low-lying ribbon of glass that emphasizes the transparency of its proceedings.

The building has two layers: the outer one consists of the foyer, the court chamber, an auditorium and an exhibition space that opens out on to the Great African Steps. The next layer consists of the administration section, the judges’ conference and meeting rooms, and, right in the middle of the building, 14 judges’ chambers – 11 for the Constitutional Court judges and three for visiting ones.

The judges’ chambers are on three stories and have open spaces and ponds at ground level. They offer easy access to the court and to the library, in the northern wing of the building.

The foyer opens on to Constitution Square – the precinct’s open-air hub. The court chamber itself and Constitution Square have been constructed on the site of the awaiting-trial block, which was built in 1928 and demolished to make way for the Court. The architects have commemorated this important building by keeping four of its central stairwells and by using its bricks in the walls of the chamber.

Running the length of Constitution Square, the “We the People” wall displays the opinions and impressions of visitors to Constitution Hill. Contributors to the wall include former president Nelson Mandela and other ex-prisoners.

The Great African Steps lead from Constitution Square to the ramparts of the Old Fort and Number Four Prison. The steps divide the old stone wall of Number Four and the Court’s glass frontage – a walkway between the past and the future.

The three main prison buildings of the Old Fort remain. The court itself is on the east side of the site; there are sports facilities below. In the northwest corner, the defunct Queen Victoria Hospital is already being used as residential space.

Further west, off Constitution Square, is space for a coffee shop, bookshops and a tourist office. Other organizations will find a home here too, such as those bodies established in terms of Chapter 9 of the Constitution to foster our constitutional democracy.

The Court’s permanent home was inaugurated by President Thabo Mbeki on Human Rights Day in 2004 – part of the celebration of 10 years of democracy.

At the inauguration, President Mbeki stated, “The formation of this new and magnificent structure also gave us the opportunity to encourage and celebrate the creative talent of our people. It provided the time and space for the architects, workers in the plastic arts and landscape gardeners to give free rein to their imagination. And thus it has made the statement that all human beings have a soul, and are miraculous creations that are more than mere law-governed animals.”

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