Law as an Oppressor and Liberator

On Wednesday we visited to Constitution Hill for a guided tour of the former prison and South Africa’s Constitutional Court, which officially opened in 1995 and is similar to the United States Supreme Court but holds a higher power. The Constitutional Court values public openness and equality as seen by the seating which is mostly at the same level for everyone and windows set at ground level for anyone to see in and out, without distinction of race so that everyone is recognized as equal. Today the Court maintains the South African Constitution as the supreme law of the land and ensures that “Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.” However, before the Constitution was promulgated by Nelson Mandela in 1994 that wasn’t the case. Throughout South Africa’s history, especially during the Apartheid, law was used as an oppressor to keep the powerful white minority above people of color.
We were led on a tour of two former prisons, female and male, to try to understand the horrible experiences and unjust circumstances that criminals and political prisoners faced because of the law.
No. 17 1956, Riotous Assemblies Act, prohibited public gatherings in open-air places if the Minister of Justice considered them to be a threat to public peace. The broadly defined Terrorism Act No. 83 1967, condemned political activists to indefinite detention without trial for the purpose of interrogation and solitary confinement. No. 44 1950, Suppression of Communism Act outlawed any call for radical change, restricted people to certain areas and banned them to join organizations. No. 67 1952, Natives Act (Abolition) permitted the arrest of any “native” male who wasn’t carrying an identification pass and was extended to women in 1962. The passbook was their only identity and classified them as lower class citizens. Blacks could be asked to show it at any time or place and would be arrested on the spot if they didn’t have it on them. The government originally used the passbook law to oppress, but blacks turned that around and used it as a liberator with the pass burning campaign. The campaign showed that blacks were tired of dealing with this ridiculous law and were not afraid to fight it. The campaign against the passbook law gave them confidence and liberation. These are only a few of numerous laws that were passed in order to arrest people of color and maintain their subservience.
Many other laws were also created to indict whites in political crimes, which could be punishable by death. While in the overcrowded, desolate prisons, coloreds were treated unfairly compared to the whites in terms of diet, labor and sanitation. A quote displayed in one of the prisons read, “There is no such thing as comfort in prison.” Political prisoners were stripped of their dignity and became criminals with little hope. For them, the most extreme form of punishment was to be stripped of everything and thrown into an isolation cell for up to 30 days, but in some cases as long as a year, and given nothing. Walking through these prisons was heart breaking and horrifying as we saw how these people, who hadn’t done real wrong, were treated. The cruel conditions and treatment of these men and women speak to their bravery, pride and perseverance to seek justice and equality for all people. The front gates of the women’s prison displayed a quote from one of the former prisoners that shows the oppressive power the law had. It read, “They told you your life was over beyond this gate,” – Nolundi Ntamo, a pass offender. These prisons were taking peoples dignity and lives and it was the unjust laws that were condemning them to oppression.
After Constitution Hill, we visited the Apartheid Museum. It was an emotional and powerful collection of exhibits that put gave us perspective and insight into what life was like during apartheid. We learned that putting apartheid into practice required the enactment of innumerable laws that aimed to racialize and regulate all aspects of social and political life. The sheer number of laws enacted shows the omnipotence of the apartheid state. However, the constant stream of new laws and amendments also testifies to the success of people evading, deflecting and finding loopholes in the law.
A quote by Nelson Mandela displayed at the museum read, “The only way to beat the tiger is to tame him.” The core of the people of South Africa’s success in overcoming the Apartheid was fighting back in a civil, dignified arena, such as the courtroom. Non-violence was a cornerstone of Mandela’s creed and he as well as others in the ANC used law and diplomacy to win the battle. In this sense, law was a liberator for the oppressed people in that it gave them opportunity, hope and equality in society. ANC’s leadership, pushed by the ANC Youth League, transformed the ANC into a mass-based political organization that rejected violence and sought freedom through the law. New laws, such as the 1995 Right to Life Act that eliminates the death penalty, were enacted through the Constitutional Court and replaced oppressive laws, such as the Bantu Education Act, Housing Act and Bantu Taxation Act. Through the Bill of Rights, which applies to all law, and binds the legislature, the executive, the judiciary and all organs of state all people were represented and protected. The Constitution, which is a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa, liberated the oppressed people and shows the progressive future for human rights of all people in South Africa.
As we walked outside the Constitutional Court in Constitution Square we saw a tribute to the document, the Flame of Democracy. The flame burns with the fire and spirit of the liberated people, not the oppressor. It signifies freedom, human dignity, and equality, which are aspects of our own lives that we always want to defend. We must always remember that those rights belong to all people regardless of race or social class.

QUESTION: What is most necessary for change and liberation… Is it simply strong litigation? Is it personal/social acceptance or aggression/violence? Is it a combination of those or something entirely different?

TWITTER: Oppressors use law to unjustly condemn, but bravery and legal strength can liberate and restore dignity to those who fight #ConstitutionHill #ElonSASA

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