I went to the Muizenberg court – an institution which I had not known existed – on Thursday. I had been asked to appear in the case against the intruder who pepper-sprayed me, and whom I drove out of the house. I’d been told to appear there “at half past eight for nine” but given no other instructions.
The Court is behind the Muizenberg Police Station, high on the slopes. Heading up the cobbled road for my 8:30 meeting with the prosecutor, I was joined by a dozen or so people who, to judge from their clothing and the woe on their faces, were among the poorest and most marginal of our citizenry. More stood on the steps and ramp leading to the building, and in the corridor which one entered, more milled about. Among them were several people in uniform, police, court officials and people wearing the badges of a security company. None of the dodgy-looking men behaved in an aggressive or cocky way as they might in other circumstances but stared at the floor, avoiding eye-contact as I made my way through them.
The Court, when I found it, turned out to be a wood-panelled room about the size of two classrooms, divided down the middle by a waist-high wooden barrier. On this side were wooden benches like church pews in rows with aisles along the walls. A distressed-looking couple sitting in a pew leaned against each other, the only people on this side of the barrier, and the only other “white” people in the room. On the farther side were desks occupied by five or six functionaries, some in black gowns, shuffling stacks of manila files. The Magistrate, a dapper man with grey temples, sat on his plinth behind a raised wooden panel and looked down on all. He was telling them about how hard he worked, a sixteen-hour day, he said, and how little time he had for other activities – no time to go to church or assist the pastor, no time to relax with his family… They listened respectfully. It didn’t look like something that would bear interruption. I found a pew near the front, where I could observe proceedings and perhaps seize a moment of attention from one of the functionaries.
After a while, the magistrate gathered up his books and papers and left the room, a clerk following after him, and the attention of the others was released. I went to stand at one of the gates and, after seemingly being pointedly ignored for some minutes, caught the eye of an attractive young woman in black robes and with very thick spectacles, which made her eyes flash in and out of focus as though seen through a goldfish bowl. I told her that I wasn’t sure who to speak to, that I was a plaintiff. Oh, a plaintiff, she said, you’ll have to speak to the prosecutor, indicating a petite woman in her thirties, I’d guess, who sat furthest from me conferring with a young man in a brown suit. I hovered at the gate but her attention did not waver from whatever she was discussing. There was a loud banging at a door leading to the court on their side of the barrier, which they ignored. Soon it was repeated, along with the rattling of the door handle. Relax, the door will be unlocked, one of the women said, softly. The banging went on, and she went nearer the door and repeated it, but no louder. The banging and rattling went on intermittently until someone came with a key and the door was unlocked. Two policemen entered, escorting an old woman of exceptional thinness, tininess and abjection. They seated her on a bench on the court side, where she slumped, looking down at her writhing hands, her face shrouded by a doek. All this time the prosecutor didn’t look up.
I moved to the other gate, nearer to where she sat. Eventually I threw caution to the winds, entered the sacred precinct and walked towards her desk. She looked up. Michael Cope? she asked. I guessed that she had recognised me from the copy of my ID attached to the case, and that she was expecting me. She seemed sharp. Good signs. She then told me that the accused’s attorney had offered to settle the matter out of court, through mediation, but advised against it – It’s a water-tight case, she said. I don’t see what his lawyer was seeking. He is probably just doing whatever he can for his client. I agreed, telling her that in my opinion, by committing serial crimes which relied on people’s trust he was contributing to eroding trust in the community, aside from the assault. In that case, she told me, you can go. All that will happen now is they’ll set a date, and there’ll probably be a bail application. We’ll get hold of you to prepare you for the case. Thank you Mr Cope for coming this morning.
It was almost nine. The Magistrate had returned to his seat. The pews had filled up. Outside the court the view of False Bay over the rooftops was vast and grand. The ritual of Justice, with its robes, its inner sanctum, its arcane terms, was about to begin.