Saturday, June 13, 2009

“Like Grass Through Cement”

There’s something uniquely South African about the aesthetic of many important public sites here, in which the materials of the old are used to construct the new. Take the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg (right), which our group visited last Friday. When the Justices discussed the site for the new Court in the mid-1990s, they decided on the old Braamfontein jail, in which the notorious Number Four detention centre stood as a scar on the landscape. In this disciplinary space, both heroic protesters—including Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Luthuli, and Nelson Mandela—and more conventional lawbreakers were incarcerated between 1902 and 1983.

The Court combines African traditional themes with the relics of past suffering. The foyer (below left) contains a large wall built from bricks of the old prison—including a concrete slab displaying the graffiti of the past and one of the old cell doors. Some 150,000 bricks from the old prison were used in building the court. But the foyer also has seats made of tree trunks, pointing to the African tradition of mediating disputes while sitting on stumps under a tree. In fact, the logo of the Court is an umbrella tree, under which can be seen figures representing the tradition of open and transparent judgement. This juxtaposition of ancient, old, and new confronts visitors to the Court from the outset.

The courtroom where hearings take place and judgments are announced is decorated with cowhide, representing the significance of cattle in African traditional society. A large South African flag made of thousands of tiny beads woven together stands to the right of the Justices’ seats. To the left is a window, about half a metre high, but extending for the length of the wall. The Justices can see only feet through that window, with no idea of race, class, or gender—an unusual invocation, I think, of John Rawls’ “veil of neutrality.” The court is open to all, and our group was greatly privileged to hear Deputy Justice Dikgang Mosenke (himself a former political prisoner who had spoken to us earlier in the day) deliver a judgement on a case reminding the Executive (the President) of its obligations to protect South Africans made vulnerable by the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy.

But the most striking thing about the Court is the way it represents the pain, embodies the hopes, and celebrates the gifts of South Africans. Indeed, the space is part memorial, part judiciary, and part art gallery. Walking down the main hallway one sees lined along the walls diverse representations of South Africa’s creativity, a wonderful collection of iconic pieces assembled by Justice Albe Sachs, uniting themes of human rights and cultural diversity.
Perhaps the most moving of these is “The man who sang and the woman who kept silent”, by Judith Mason. Inspired by testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mason’s tryptich is centred by a complete dress made of blue plastic bags (right). It recalls an anti-Apartheid activist who was captured, stripped naked, tortured, and then marched out to a field to be executed. As she walked, she picked up a discarded shopping back and used it to cover her genitals. When she knelt over her grave, according to the testimony of her executioner, she asked to be permitted to sing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (a hymn entitled “God Bless Africa”—the anthem of the liberation movements). She was shot in the back of the head and buried. When the Commission recovered her remains, the plastic bag was still wrapped around her pelvis.

Mason wrote:
“Sister, a plastic bag may not be the whole armour of God, but you were wrestling with flesh and blood, and against powers, against the rulers of darkness, against spiritual wickedness in sordid places. Your weapons were your silence and a piece of rubbish. Finding that bag and wearing it until you were disinterred is such a frugal, common-sensical, house-wifely thing to do, an ordinary act… At some level you shamed your capturers, and they did not compound their abuse of you by stripping you a second time. Yet they killed you. We only know your story because a sniggering man remembered how brave you were. 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. Hamba kahle. Umkhonto.”

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The same aesthetic is visible in the many “informal settlements” that dot the South African landscape—corrogated metal and cardboard shacks assembled on the outskirts and backyards of townships (left). Here, the very poor take the things cast off by the well-heeled, and use those materials to build dwellings. Old sheets of advertising, found behind some corporate warehouse, become colourful wallpaper. Bits of wire and discarded Coke cans are twisted into intricate sculptures which can be found for sale at the side of South Africa’s highways. While the “briocoleur” is fashionable intellectually in the West (or at least was), bricolage is alive and well here in the South. Indeed, bricolage here is a matter of survival.

Both the Constitutional Court and the random shacks remind me of a song by Bruce Cockburn. Written as an imaginative recollection of an uprising in Pinochet’s Chile in the mid-1980s, Cockburn juxtaposes imagery of “day flowering out of the night”, “shots ringing through smoke and gas”, and the bells of “first mass”.

Santiago Sunrise
See them marching home
See them rising like grass through cement
In the Santiago dawn

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“Like grass through cement”: that’s how the kingdom of God irrupts into the world. Even the Constitution itself—perhaps the most progressive in the world—is a matter of contestation, interpretation, and bricolage. While Romand Coles (citing Sheldon Wolen) argues that constitutions represent the "end" of the democratic struggle (Coles and Hauerwas: 139), the ossification of liberation, one can see the new continually irrupting through South Africa’s, “like grass through cement.” Anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff remind us that while South African has a Constitution instantiating the European ideal of the bounded, bureaucratic nation-state, it is situated within a contest of alternative sovereignties (traditional societies, chiefdoms, religious and other loyalties) which they identify as a “counter-politics” of the “Kingdom of Culture” (Comaroff and Comaroff:446). This is not simply between “citizens” and “subjects”, but within political persons who experience themselves as fractured between multiple sources for the construction of identity (447). The resolution of this tension is not happening in theory, but in the pragmatics of legal negotiation. Thus contextualized, the Court and the Constitution exist alongside “self-defined aggregates of persons [who] seek to open up possibilities for themselves, in pursuit of their passions, principles, ideals, interests.” These name ”a politics of everyday life” (448) where “the modernist sense of ideology gives way to ID-ology, the quest for a collective good, and sometimes goods, sanctioned by, and in the name of, a shared identity.” (447) Ideas of human rights—carefully defined within the Constitution but contested and renegotiated in everyday life become part of the symbolic “bricolage” making up the new South African identity. I think this is a sign of fragile, but real, hope.

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There’s a theological lesson here. After all, as Charles Mathewes reminds us, we live "during the world"—that time from the ascension of Christ to his second coming. The fact that South Africa decided not to start anew (contrast Washington D.C., which was built on an eradication, a levelling of space into which romanticized symbols of ancient Rome were imported) but using and reusing the material and symbolic resources of the old reminds us that we still live in media res. And "during the world", history is a site of contestation, deconstruction, and reconstruction. Yet we also see signs of a longing for a true novum, a true “new heavens and new earth”, in which our relations are governed by love, and our lives stretch forth to the God who fills all things. As long as South Africa remains in media res, there is hope.


Cockburn, Bruce. World of Wonders. True North Records TN-66, 1986.

Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. “Reflections on Liberalism, Policulturalism, and ID-Ology: Citizenship and Difference in South Africa.” Social Identities 9.4 (2003): 445–73.

Coles, Romand, and Stanley Hauerwas. Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary. Theopolitical Visions. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2007.

Mathewes, Charles T. A Theology of Public Life. Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge UP, 2007.

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