A part of Judith Mason’s triptych The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent, which is part of the Constitutional Court’s art collection. Picture: Ben Law-Viljoen/The Constitutional Court Trust
A part of Judith Mason’s triptych The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent, which is part of the Constitutional Court’s art collection. Picture: Ben Law-Viljoen/The Constitutional Court Trust

A week after the long day that marked the end of the Jacob Zuma presidency, former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs was not hiding his delight.

"In recent years, people would say to me: ‘Look at the unemployment, the racism, the crime, the corruption. Is this the country we were fighting for?’" Sachs told a small gathering at David Krut Publishing in Cape Town. "And I’d say, ‘Yes, it’s the country I was fighting for, but not the society.’

"[The country] has the Constitution, it has institutions, it has people who speak their minds. We’ve got to use that to get the society that we want. That’s one reason why I am so thrilled by recent events.

"In one sense it is validating the conviction I had all the way through: that we have the people, the imagination, the intelligence and the desire to make a really decent country."

Sachs was speaking at the relaunch of Art and Justice, the lavishly illustrated ode to how art was integrated into the design of a new court for a new society. He funded the second print run, a decade after the book hit the shelves in 2008.

He was travelling overseas when he received an e-mail informing him he’d won $1m.

"Sure, you get these all the time," he quipped, but scrutiny with an "intense lawyer’s eye" revealed he had been awarded the 2014 Tang Prize in Rule of Law.

The small fortune chafed at him: Sachs described it as dangerous; disruptive. "So I decided to give a big chunk to the Constitutional [Court’s] artworks programme," he said.

The money will help pay for the curation, restoration and maintenance of the court’s growing collection.

This story neatly illustrates the values Sachs and his colleagues subscribed to at the dawn of democracy — and still defend. Now, in a time of Twitter bots, fake news and political scandal, it’s hard to recall the sense of integrity and hope that underpinned the writing of the new Constitution and making of the new court building.

Art and Justice captures this spirit — not only in the text, which explains how the court was conceived and designed, but also through the art collection. It exudes a generosity, an idealism linked to the times.

The book lovingly details core artworks and explains how artists helped fashion design elements, from security gates to carpets and light fittings. Everything about the building was meant to embody the openness and dignity the Constitution upheld. It was designed with "artwork integrated into the very fabric".

While still in a temporary building, before the Old Gaol site was converted, Sachs and Yvonne Mokgoro were given R10,000 for décor. They famously blew it on a Joseph Ndlovu tapestry, Humanity.

Picture courtesy of: Art and Justice/The Constitutional Court Trust and David Krut Publishing
Picture courtesy of: Art and Justice/The Constitutional Court Trust and David Krut Publishing

Artists and galleries donated work (occasionally "things that weren’t moving very fast").

Sachs obtained work from the likes of Cecil Skotnes, Marlene Dumas and William Kentridge; justices also donated works. Sachs contributed some Dumile Feni drawings.

The core concern was to find work that "represented the spirit of humanity in all its varied representations". The main criterion was to foreground the human body as opposed to abstract art, which was "too much rationality" at that point.

Denunciatory art was also rejected. As Sachs explained, "Diane Victor offered us some beautiful [works], very strongly feminist and we couldn’t accept it, because we had lots of cases involving gender rights.

"If people come to court and say, ‘we’re wasting our time, look at the pictures they’ve got up on the wall, they’ve already made up their minds’, we didn’t want that. Which is not to say you don’t need troubled or denunciatory work in the world, it’s extremely important, but not in our court in terms of the ambience we wanted."

Reading the book now catapults one back to the ferocious concern of the times: how to live with the past and build a more just society.

Judith Mason’s three-piece response to a story told at the truth commission about Phila Ndwandwe, who was killed by security police, is a key piece.

The Man who Sang and the Woman who kept Silent is a tribute to Phila, who was held naked in jail. She was exhumed wearing the blue plastic packet she’d used as underpants. The work also honours Harald Sefola, who sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika before being electrocuted.

Sunscreens on the Constitutional Court’s west elevation by Patrick Rorke and Lewis Levin. Picture: Ben Law-Viljoen/The Constitutional Court Trust
Sunscreens on the Constitutional Court’s west elevation by Patrick Rorke and Lewis Levin. Picture: Ben Law-Viljoen/The Constitutional Court Trust

Some of the art is naive in style, some craft-based, and not all is made by well-known artists. The court’s chamber, with its acoustic banners and carpets based on a tree’s shadows, Nguni hide and beaded flag is eclectic.

Not every work may have stood the test of time, but the court’s big-hearted championing of human dignity pulls it all together. All are equal under law, after all.

Much has changed since Art and Justice was first published. It has not been updated. It remains a fascinating time capsule, a "piece of history" as Krut puts it.

The collection has grown substantially since 2008, says Constitutional Court Art Collection curator Melissa Goba.

Vetting acquisitions is more rigorous, and new works must uphold the integrity of the court and justices.

More attention is being paid to how works are stored, handled and preserved. As Goba says, the light and humidity conditions in the court can be challenging. These are being surveyed so that artists can be assured that any donations will be well cared for.

The Constitution Hill precinct is expanding. A visitors centre with new artworks and a museum and archive of the Constitution are planned, driven by a different organisation and various partnerships. One is with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Sachs remains an avid supporter of the court and Constitution. About 900 of the 1,000 new copies of Art and Justice printed will be used for promotion; only 100 are for sale.

Sachs says many are still surprised at how art and justice were brought together at the court. Justice is seen as the opposite of art: "rational, pure logic, detached, unemotional … But why shouldn’t law go beyond pure rationality and logic? It’s about people. About people’s rights."

• Booked Art and Justice tours are available at the court from Tuesday to Thursday until 2pm.