Justice at the Other End of the World

If you follow our blog posts with any frequency, you know that my wife and I enjoyed a trip to South Africa this past October. We traveled from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic and studied the spectacular wildlife and landscapes in between. We also learned a good deal about the country’s history and the landmark reforms of post-apartheid South Africa.

Sitting on the Braamfontein Ridge in Johannesburg – directly next to the infamous Number Four prison where Gandhi and Mandela both spent time – the Constitutional Court building opened in 2004. The Constitutional Court itself was created in 1994 “to protect the [country’s new] Constitution and the fundamental human rights” entrenched within it. A total of eleven judges serve non-renewable terms between 12 to 15 years. Judges are chosen by the President from a list created by the Judicial Service Commission.

Much like the United States Supreme Court, South Africa’s Constitutional Court serves as the final arbiter of constitutional questions and interpretation. Unlike the Supreme Court, the South African court’s jurisdiction is limited to constitutional questions, and it does not consider common law or legislation disputes. Those fall to the Supreme Court of Appeal.

The court building itself is at once modest and inspiring. Tourists enter easily and, if court is not in session, can roam freely, right down to the advocate’s bench facing the panel of judges. A former judge aptly described the building: “Public buildings normally shut off the outside world. Normally you get swallowed up in the power of the state or corporate entity, but here the building is saying, ‘I belong to you, you belong to me.’”

Birthed from the pangs of apartheid, South Africa’s Constitution, its Constitutional Court, and the Court complex where both reside, give strong testament to humankinds’ capacity to learn, to change while still remembering, and to aspire. If you make the long trek to the southern tip of the world, keep this tourist site on your itinerary.