Essays | January 12, 2015

20 Years Later – The Role of Art and Justice in South Africa’s Democracy

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History, by Dumile Feni
History, by South African sculptor Dumile Feni.
Source: Photo by Akona Kenqu

At the entrance to the Constitutional Court of South Africa stands a sculpture of a large man yoked to a cart. His burden is a human one: a man and woman who themselves are seated on the back of a fourth figure kneeling on the cart. At first glance, the sculpture resonates with the history of servitude that marked the dehumanizing institution of apartheid. On closer reflection, the sculpture reveals a more complex message. The sculptor, South African artist Dumile Feni, did not create any racial differentiation between the four figures, and the man drawing the cart is the only figure large and strong enough to accomplish this task. The title of the work is History, and the four figures carry each other in a way that reflects the dependence, the interconnectedness and the tension that have always characterized human relationships.

History is the first of many artworks that challenge a visitor to the Constitutional Court to reflect on South Africa’s tortured past and the country’s transition to a constitutional order. As the highest court in the country, the Constitutional Court protects and enhances the fundamental values of human dignity, equality, and freedom of all people living within South Africa’s borders. The Constitutional Court Art Collection (CCAC)[1] is both a living monument to the ideals on which South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution is based and a reminder of the work that remains.

The CCAC has humble origins. In 1994, when the original eleven justices of the Court were meeting in an office park in Johannesburg, Justices Albie Sachs and Yvonne Mokgoro were given $1,000 to decorate the courtroom. The justices did something far more valuable than brighten up the space; they spent the entire budget on commissioning artist Joseph Ndlovu to create a tapestry that represented the principles of humanity. Since that initial decision, the CCAC has grown to include donated works by over four hundred artists, a collection that is now valued at over $5 million.

Guided by the leadership of CCAC’s Art Curator, Stacey Vorster, a visitor to the Constitutional Court today is confronted, inspired, and challenged by this collection. Upon entering the Court’s foyer through a massive set of wooden doors that are hand-carved with representations of the twenty-seven rights enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution, a visitor first notices a neon light installation by Thomas Mulcaire, which loudly proclaims “A luta continua” (the struggle continues). A series of urban griefscapes by Regi Bardavid presents the artist’s emotional struggle after her husband was killed during a botched robbery. A nude self-portrait by William Kentridge (a white South African man) highlights and reverses the ways in which nudity has been used historically as a tool of dominance to objectify black and female bodies.

Further down the gallery, a tattered dress made from blue rubbish bags bears witness to the sacrifice of Phila Ndwandwe, a general in the armed branch of the ANC who was caught by members of the South African Defence Force while attempting to smuggle information out of the country. After being stripped naked and tortured for refusing to give up any information, Ndwandwe fashioned a makeshift set of underwear for herself out of a blue plastic bag. This act of defiance and humanity burned itself into the memory of one of her captors, who told the story of Ndwandwe’s detention and death at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Upon hearing the story, artist Judith Mason wanted to pay homage to the extraordinary acts of an ordinary woman caught up in apartheid’s brutal machinery. Mason’s poem written on the skirt of the dress reads: “Memorials to your courage are everywhere; they blow about in the streets and drift on the tide and cling to thorn-bushes. This dress is made from some of them.”

These artworks transcend the decorative or commemorative. They create moments of empathy that translate abstract concepts like apartheid into intimate experiences of individual pain and resilience. This empathy is an essential component of the court’s jurisprudence, which is founded in human dignity.  Art and justice are usually represented as dwelling in different domains: art is said to relate to the human heart, justice to human intelligence. Rationality is sometimes seen as inimical to art, and passion as hostile to justice. The Constitutional Court in South Africa shows how art and human rights overlap and reinforce each other. At the core of the Bill of Rights and of the artistic endeavor represented in the Court is respect for human dignity. It is this that unites art and justice.

It is imperative that the CCAC maintain the pieces already on display and also expand its collection to include works of continued vitality. And yet ironically, domestic fundraising is all but impossible because the Court must appear impartial and cannot accept any money from South African donors or the South African government, who may appear as litigants before it. The CCAC, accordingly, suffers. As a result, the roof is leaking onto priceless pieces; important works lack labels and explanations that would enhance the understanding and experience of the Court’s visitors; and tears of pigeon droppings run down Nelson Mandela’s cheeks in a depiction by Amos Miller. It is for these reasons that in October 2014, The Foundation for Society, Law and Art in South Africa officially launched a fundraising campaign at the offices of Hogan Lovells in Washington DC and New York to establish an endowment for the purposes of protecting, maintaining and eventually expanding the CCAC.

The state of the CCAC mirrors the troubles faced by South Africa as a country. After a period of exuberance in the years following South Africa’s astonishing transition to a legal order that protects the rights of all people, the hard and grinding work of maintaining a successful democracy has set in. The success of South Africa’s new Constitution will be determined not only by the strength of the judgments coming from South Africa’s courts, but also by the efforts across all of the country’s civil society to promote respect for the human rights of its people.

The CCAC symbolizes the best aspirations of our democracy, of reconciliation, of justice, and of transformation. When we fight for the artworks, we also fight for the underlying project of making a viable democracy in South Africa. To this end, the importance of the CCAC is not only to infuse the judgments of the Constitutional Court with empathy, but to provoke debate and reflection across a broader swathe of South African society. As the American jurist Judge Learned Hand has said: “I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes, believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women, when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it, and no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, and no court to save it.” [2]

The CCAC does not rest its hopes solely on the jurisprudence of the institution whose building it shares. It promotes the ideals of South Africa’s Constitution in a way that both overlaps and is independent of the law through a series of enigmatic and essential messages. Memorials lie everywhere. The struggle continues. We carry each other.

The Collection represents a history of intense passion, pain and redemption. And as it reflects on that history, it challenges and inspires a history that has yet to be written.





[1] To learn more about the CCAC and the Foundation’s endeavor to help preserve this important collection please visit:

[2]  Hand, L. (1944) Spirit of Liberty. Speech given during an event titled “I am an American day” in Central Park, New York, NY. Available online at




3 Responses to “20 Years Later – The Role of Art and Justice in South Africa’s Democracy”

  1. AfroCritic

    There is no question that art is a powerful legacy of any nation and it is sad that the CCAC lacks funds to put a roof over its head. Art and literature together have played a big role in establishing human rights and freedoms both in Africa and the rest of the world. In Africa however the fine arts have not received much patronage. If you take an ordinary African they can name several writers off the bat, but hardly any sculptor or painter.

    A job of promoting these arts is needed because their message is so much more accessible.


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