Monday, September 20, 2010

The courts

In the first half of 1975 I had worked as a cub reporter on the East London Daily Dispatch under my childhood hero, editor Donald Woods. During that time I had to do a fair amount of court reporting, and I found it soul-destroying. It was the height of apartheid, and one saw impoverished people up for all manner of petty and not so petty crimes. I never did get to the Pass Law courts, where apparently people were convicted at a high rate for being "illegally" in an urban area. Anyway, after a month's grace, having started work on the Evening Post in PE on August 1, I again found myself in the courts, this time the so-called New Law Courts in North End.

Talk about a dingy dive. In those days people were free to smoke in the corridors of the court building, and as a reformed smoker I found it incredibly hard to survive in this environment. And of course many of the wretched souls forced to be at court were often a couple of days short of a shower. But again the hardest part was coming face to face with the ongoing criminality that is a by-product of poverty and oppression. Here I sketched two women on one of the benches in a court room.

Outside one of the court rooms I spotted this guy, who would often be seen around the courts for the few months I covered them in late 1984. He had no legs, but clearly had powerful arms, which he would use to sterling effect to hoist himself onto and off a bench.

Black people today are reluctant to acknowledge that many, many of them collaborated with the apartheid system. And who is anyone to judge them? The reality is that people needed employment, so they worked in the courts, as police, and so on. This good-looking young guy I remember as having worked as an interpreter, since most of the accused and witnesses spoke Xhosa and most of the magistrates and prosecutors were Afrikaans.

I should note that most of these drawings were done, as should be obvious, on the inside covers of my reporter's notebooks, or even on lined pages, as I had done five years earlier while a military conscript. Here I watercoloured the sketch of a guy I recall as having been a cop.

But the drawing above was done not in my notebook, but on the back of an Evening Post taxi card, signed by my then news editor, Ralph Jarvis, who later in the 1980s went to work for a charismatic Natal evangelist.

Another of the interpreters.

Ah yes, and then the magistrates. Some of my notes can be seen through the paper. I remember how this guy used to sit staring at the papers in front of him, the court in silence, before finally coming to some or other decision. On one occasion a young white guy had been convicted of possession of dagga. One magistrate told him: "I sentence you to five years' imprisonment ..." You could see the guy collapse in despair, only for the magistrate to continue: "... conditionally suspended for five years."

This person I recall as having been an accused in some or other case. At least by this stage the administration of justice was non-racial, with all races sharing the same space both in and outside court.

One of the rotund cops who ran the court rooms. I remember them shouting before the magistrate entered, something like: "Staan in die hof, stand in court, phagumani." Of course that last word is sure to be wrong, but that's how it sounded.

Who was this guy? An accused, a witness, a cop perhaps?

Ditto with this guy, though he was certainly not a cop. Possibly an interpreter.

As has been my wont down the years, sometimes the old mind wanders and comes up with odd images, like this guy with a crucifix arm, done on the back of one of those notebooks.

This guy I recall as having been a pensive magistrate.

And this guy could have been anything, but not a magistrate.

Again, my zany side stepped in.

They said of black people who worked for the cops, the prison service, black local authorities or the homeland governments that they helped to administer their own misery. Again, though, who is anyone to judge? This is one of the cops who worked in the courts. They basically had to swallow their pride. Indeed, that is what apartheid was all about.

A sharp wheeler-dealer perhaps? Or maybe a sharp lawyer?

White men, usually with moustaches, but always with dark glasses, were synonymous with the apartheid security police, though I can't recall who these okes were.

Another lapse, I'm afraid, into pictorial irreverence.

Here the obligatory "snor", probably on a cop. There are a few more court drawings lurking somewhere in my haphazard collection, so watch this space.

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