The Blue Dress

On Wednesday evening, our friend Roanna Tay provided Georgina and I with a tour of the Constitutional Court of South Africa.  Roanna is currently clerking at the Constitutional Court and has access to its many backrooms in addition to a wealth of knowledge about its intricate design, art and architecture.  The Court was established in 1994 by South Africa’s first democratic constitution is located on what is now known as Constitutional Hill.  The Hill is a former Boer fort that was later used as a prison, having previously incarcerated both Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

The wealth of knowledge that Roanna shared is much too detailed and in-depth for a blog post.  Instead, I’ve decided to share the photos above and share the story below.  The first is a picture of the sign at the entrance of the Court that is written in the eleven official languages of South Africa (making Canada’s opposition to official bilingualism look pretty absurd).  The second is a picture of Georgina and I posing as Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court.  The third is a picture of Roanna and I posing at the ‘Eternal Flame of Democracy’ – which was officially unveiled two days later to commemorate the 15th Anniversary of the signing of the South African Constitution.

As for the story, while there are many to relate after Roanna’s tour, there is one that has remained with me – it’s entitled “The Man who Sang and the Woman who kept Silent“.  The painting by Judith Mason was inspired by the story of a young woman activist detained under apartheid.  The police had stripped her and put her in a cell.  To preserve her dignity, the woman managed to create a pair of panties from a blue plastic supermarket bag.  She was later shot and buried secretly.   It was only years later when one of her captors told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the location of her grave that it was excavated by the Commission.  Her captor told the Commission:  “She was brave this one, hell, she was brave. She simply would not talk.”  When they excavated her grave, all that remained was her skeleton and the tattered blue panties.

As depicted in the picture above, the work consists of two large paintings and a dress made by the artist from bits of blue plastic.  Each painting shows the dress floating free through a dark and threatening landscape.  Scavenging hyenas are lurking in the midst, waiting for death but the dress dances out of their reach.

Inscribed on the dress, the artist 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-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.”