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Magistrates' Courts – blasts, apartheid and art
17 August 2007

Justice has been meted out in the Magistrates' Courts in the centre of Johannesburg for more than half a century, and she still wields a mighty sword from the venerable building.

The impressive western entrance in Miriam Makeba Street
The impressive western entrance in Miriam Makeba Stree

TWENTY years ago two car bombs went off outside the Johannesburg Magistrates' Courts. Three policemen died and 15 were injured.On 20 May 1987, a decoy blast drew policemen from the then John Vorster Square (now the Central Police Station), six or seven blocks away. The second, more powerful blast killed three of those policemen.

The scene outside the Magistrates' Courts was typical of the aftermath of blasts: debris was strewn across the road; the front sections of half a dozen cars were dented and distorted as if a giant had reached down and smashed them with a fist; windows were blasted out. Inside, the front office was strewn with glass and there was a hole in the ceiling. Dazed people wandered around.

These were the 11th and 12th bomb blasts in Johannesburg that year. Some of the others were at the Sanlam Centre in Eloff Street, in Sandton, at the Civic Centre, at Cosatu House and at the Carlton Centre.

Twenty-four-year-old Hein Grosskopf, a member of the ANC's Umkhonto we Sizwe armed wing, was responsible for planting the bombs. He also planted bombs outside the Krugersdorp Magistrates' Courts and the Witwatersrand Command in Quartz Street. Two military personnel died in the Krugersdorp blast.

Bomb blasts escalated through the 1980s and by 1988, 281 blasts were recorded across the country – Joburg and South Africa were very different places in the 1980s.

Construction of the courts
The Magistrates' Courts were designed by Perry and Lightfoot of Cape Town (it was put out to tender) and construction was completed in 1941, at a cost of £600 000. They replaced the Johannesburg law courts in Gandhi Square, which were demolished in 1948, but had closed in 1911.

In September 1936, Jan Smuts laid the foundation stone, in his capacity as minister of justice. The building was officially opened by the then minister of justice, CF Steyn, in August 1941.

It's an impressive, square, three-storey building, the west, north and east sides punctuated by grand columned entrances, although these days only two of those entrances are in use – west and east. The building takes up four blocks, an area of 121m².

Those entrances lead the visitor into a grand concourse some 120 metres long, almost seven metres wide and five metres high, with Tabootie marble columns and terrazza floors. It's wide enough for a car to drive through each way, with original features like the four-sided brass clock hanging from the roof and an illuminated robot giving directions to the various sections of the building. Original furniture like the long wooden benches is still to be seen in corridors.

The concourse is almost a continuation of Main Street, which continues westwards after the building. It contains 16 criminal courts and 12 civil courts, with a four-storey office block adjoining it on the southern edge, on Marshall Street.

The courts are insulated in the middle of the building, with the offices arranged around the outer sections. This means that the courts are immune to street noises and other outside disturbances.

The Colin Gill mural depicting magistrate Captain Carl von Brandis
The Colin Gill mural depicting magistrate Captain Carl von Brandis

The criminal courts are in four groups of four on the ground floor, with courtyards in between, giving each courtroom natural light. Witness rooms and offices adjoin the courts, for ease of access. A stairway up from the basement cells also leads straight into each courtroom.

Magistrates' offices are along the northern edge, on Fox Street, believed at the time to be the quieter side.

One of those courtyards contained an attractive fountain, but it is now filled with untidy plants. All the windows were frosted, even the ones overlooking the inner courtyards.

Apartheid etiquette
This elegant building is a model of apartheid etiquette. The ground floor courts have four subsidiary concourses, especially created as a "native concourse" linking to an ordinary southern entrance reserved for blacks, according to The South African Builder of August 1941.

"The native and Asiatic witness-rooms are so placed that these people have no need to use the public concourse or the European section," the journal explains.

Chief interpreter Abel Khoza recounts how blacks were served food in the canteen: "The court canteen allowed whites only to go inside and sit around tables and eat. The black members of the staff used to buy through an opening next to the entrance of the canteen. There was a white lady who was serving us through that open space. She always wear transparent gloves, she did not want to touch money from a black person without gloves.

"All stale food was put aside every afternoon and sold to the blacks the following day."

That serving hatch is still there, but is covered by the wooden panel behind it, now housing an electrical fitting.

Sixty-two year old Khoza has worked at the courts for the past 38 years, and speaks nine languages. He grew up in Alexandra and it is there that he was exposed to many languages.

Khoza recalls how, when blacks were found guilty, they were sent to jail without the option of a fine or suspended sentence; these options were offered to whites. Black witnesses and accused were refused letters to present to their employers as proof of their absence from work, he adds.

Despite being a crucial cog in the court operation interpreters were never referred to by their names. The court etiquette was a microcosm of how blacks were treated in the wider apartheid world.

Prisoners are brought to the cells through a large wooden double door from Ntemi Piliso Street. There are 15 cells in the basement, holding up to 500 prisoners most days. There have been attempted escapes from the cells, but most prisoners have been caught again immediately.

Originally, the basement also had provision for corpus delicti (evidence) storerooms and horse stables, says the journal. The horses were used in police patrols.

The northern entrance with Moses Kottler's justice sculpture
The northern entrance with Moses Kottler's justice sculpture

The civil courts are arranged in the same way on the first floor, which also has offices, detention rooms and probationers' offices. On the second floor there are conference rooms for the magistrates and the neat but small Krause Law Library.

Exterior artwork
The exterior of the building, in classical and impenetrable lines, is constructed from brick, concrete, granite and stone. Waterpoort stone wasused, presenting challenges to the architects. "This stone is very fine in texture, but so hard that specimens had to be sent to Britain and America for testing and advice on the best machinery to be used for cutting."

Originally the four sides were finished with a neat lawn garden, with a fountain on the Fox Street side, but now the lawn only exists on Fox Street. Today, the four sides are sealed with tall, steel fencing. Steel windows and cornices finish the exterior, together with several impressive sculptured figures.

The major figure at the Fox Street entrance is a classical stone sculpture of a female, symbolising justice. Almost three metres tall, it was carved by Moses Kottler from one piece of stone.

Kottler was born in 1896 in Lithuania but came to South Africa with his parents as a boy. He was a self-taught sculptor but also had a reputation as a painter – he studied in Jerusalem, Munich and Paris. He was a contemporary of DC Boonzaier and, after living in Cape Town for some years, he settled in Johannesburg, where he died in 1977. He had associations with the Johannesburg Art Gallery, which has his 1926 wooden "Meidjie", a poignant piece.

Accompanying this sculpture are two bronze figures at the top of the stairs, the work of Coert Steynberg.

Steynberg was born in the Transvaal in 1905 and worked in stone, marble, brass, copper and wood. His work is represented around the country and abroad, in particular a Bartholomew Dias statue in SA House in London, an Andries Pretorius monument in Graaff Reinet, and a Peace of Vereeniging monument in Vereeniging.

Interior artwork
On the stairway from the Ntemi Piliso Street entrance are two large paintings – 4,5m by 3,6m – by Colin Gill, done in 1940. One depicts Captain Carl von Brandis, the town's first magistrate, settling a digger's dispute. The second, on the opposite wall, is incomplete, but depicts Louis Trichardt sitting in judgment over three boys during a Christmas outspan in the Drakensberg in 1887.

The artist died after completing the outline of the figures in charcoal and, after some deliberation, the authorities decided to leave the work in its incomplete state.

In a letter to the secretary for justice dated 21 May 1962, the secretary for public works, says: "The drawing presented an outstanding example of draughtsmanship and would be the subject of study by the rising generation of artists in South Africa. It was expressive and had a completeness in itself although it was unfinished. It was felt that it would create much general interest and be regarded by the public as a work of exceptional value."

After weeks of "arduous experiment", according to the Rand Daily Mail of 4 July 1964, PA Hendricks, the curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, and Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef finished the work in a matt varnish and mounted it on the wall, where it remains today.

Hendricks was apparently approached to complete the work, which he "properly refused to do", reported the newspaper.

Up the opposite stairway, on Miriam Makeba Street, are two large paintings by Pierneef, who is considered by some to be among the country's most innovative artists. One depicts the mining village of 1886 and the other the town of the late 1930s, when the court was being built. Both paintings are filled with his usual emotive skies.

Pierneef was also commissioned for another public building in the city: 28 panels for the Johannesburg Railway Station in 1929. Those works were removed in the 1990s to the railway museum in Graaff Reinet.

Halfway down the ground-floor concourse are another two murals, by Le Roux Smith le Roux, called Justice in industry, and Narrative of history. The former is filled with busy figures dominated by the traditional female figure of justice, with a black miner encased underground, working a drill.

The latter depicts an agricultural scene. They are wax on canvas. Le Roux has done murals for South Africa House in London and for SA Mutual Buildings in Cape Town.

Above the staircase at the north entrance is another mural, this one by Yolande Friend, entitled Trial by witchcraft. It depicts a sangoma throwing the bones with warriors sitting in a circle around him, and huts in the background.

Interior finishes
The walls of the main concourse are lined with cream-coloured terrazzo, with grey stone on the floors, bordered with black slate.

The courts are all finished in teak panelling, with teak docks and a teak balustrade railing around the magistrate's raised bench. The court ceilings and walls are finished in acoustic tiling and plaster, to enhance their soundproofing.

Every detail was considered. The walls of the juvenile waiting rooms were finished in a special coloured cement mixture, sprayed on by a machine. "Being rough and very hard, this finish will prevent scratching and marking by juveniles," says the journal.

Other rooms had special finishes too. The dignified office reserved for the minister of labour was panelled to door height with iroko wood, a dense, durable wood from the west coast of Africa, with teak wooden block flooring. The chief magistrate's office has stinkwood wall panelling, with teak flooring.

One of the courtyards, with the former fountain now filled with vegetation
One of the courtyards, with the former fountain now filled with vegetation

Iroko wall panelling has been used in the public committee rooms while the conference room, beneath the juvenile court, is lined with teak panelling.

Gleaming linoleum has been used in the corridors. The many windows have attractive opaque glass, with solid brass fittings. The original round brass door knobs are mostly still in place.

Heating and cooling was also carefully considered. The building is air-conditioned for summer along the western edge but not along the eastern, southern or northern edges, says the journal, as they are sufficiently cool. On the other hand, these three sides have central heating for winter, unlike the western perimeter.

"Naturally, this simple adjustment is practicable only because of the relative dryness of the Transvaal atmosphere."

There's a subtle presence of Von Brandis in the building. Besides the Gill painting, a stroll into the Krause Law Library reveals two bold photographs of him, with his full white beard and stern but astute face.

The city's newest court building, the Constitutional Court, stands in strong contrast to the Magistrates' Courts, both in its large art collection and in its architecture, designed as a more people-friendly place. But both are striking buildings, fine examples of their times.

Hein Grosskopf
HEIN Grosskopf matriculated at Linden High School, studied at the University of the Witwatersrand and was the junior mayor of Joburg. In 1988 a reward of R50 000 was offered by the police for information leading to his arrest. At the time, The Sunday Times described him as "SA's most wanted man".

Grosskopf was tried and convicted. He applied to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for amnesty, but it is uncertain whether he got it. He appeared in 1988 at the Five Freedoms Forum meeting – a group of business and political leaders who held meetings with the ANC in exile – in Lusaka. His whereabouts today are unknown.

Interpreter's statement
ABEL Khoza's statement detailing working conditions in the court from when he started working as an interpreter in 1968, can be read here.

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Last Updated on 19 March 2008