The Blue Dress
Place of the Year 2009
Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant
For more than 30 years of his life Albie Sachs lived as both lawyer and outlaw in an apartheid South Africa—working through the law in the public sphere, and against the law in the underground. As a result, he was detained in solitary confinement, tortured by sleep deprivation, and eventually blown up by a car bomb which cost him his right arm and the sight of an eye. Later he returned to play an important part in drafting South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution, and was appointed by Nelson Mandela to be a member of the country’s first Constitutional Court. As Sachs wrapped up his 15 year term this fall, Oxford published his book The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law. Below Sachs tells us why people all over the world visit the South African Constitutional Court every year.
Following his post is an excerpt from the opening of The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law which features artist Judith Mason. She explains the inspiration behind her Blue Dress, one of the art pieces acquired by Albie Sachs for the South African Constitutional Court gallery and the image on the cover of his book. To learn the full story behind Mason’s Blue Dress collection go here. And for more first hand perspective on South African culture and history, be sure to check out all of our Place of the Year contributions.
Justice Albie Sachs on the Constitutional Court Gallery
I recently had the great pleasure of visiting the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in Parliament Square. Its site is wonderful, and the rather unprepossessing building it occupies has been artfully adapted to give it a friendly, functional and stylish character. The one feature that I thought worked badly, however, was the presence in strategic places on the walls of large oil portraits of dead white, male dignitaries who had occupied the building in the past. One day I will be a dead, white male judge myself, nothing wrong with that in itself. But if it is the only imagery you see, the story is one of unjust exclusion, at odds with the very notion of doing justice to all without favour or prejudice. And even those less afflicted with political correctness than myself would recognise that apart from one elegant Gainsborough portrait, the pictures represent rather gloomy dead souls haunting a building in which the evolving wisdom of the ages is intended to resolve the problems of today in a clear, transparent and convincing way. I couldn’t help comparing the paintings with those that hang in the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, from which I have just stepped down as a judge after my fifteen year appointment came to an end. And this reflection made me realise what a remarkable place South Africa is to be in these days.
In particular I thought of the image of the Blue Dress in our Court. The Court was the first major new building of the post-apartheid era, constructed in the heart of the Old Fort Prison where both Gandhi and Mandela had been imprisoned. Thousands of visitors from all over the country and the world, visit the Court each year, not only to watch justice being done, but to journey through a remarkable building filled with extraordinarily rich and soulful artwork. And always, visitors pause for some minutes, and sometimes cry, when they see the Blue Dress.
Artist Judith Mason on the Blue Dress, an excerpt from The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law.
The work on the cover of this book commemorates the courage of Phila Ndwandwe and Harald Sefola whose deaths during the Struggle were described to the Truth and Reconciliation Commision by their killers.
Phila Ndwandwe was shot by the security police after being kept naked for weeks in an attempt to make her inform on her comrades. She preserved her dignity by making panties of of a blue plastic bag. This garment was found wrapped around her pelvis when she was exhumed. ‘She simply would not talk’, one of the policeman involved in her death testified. ‘God…she was brave.’
…I wept when I heard Phila’s story, saying to myself, ‘I wish I could make you a dress.’ Acting on this childlike response, I collected discarded blue plastic bags that I sewed into a dress. On its skirt I painted this letter:
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-wifey thing to do, an ordinary act…At some level you shamed your captors, and they did not compound their abuse 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.