PRODUCTION UPDATE: from shack to Constitutional Court

May 15, 2009

It’s 5 in the morning and we’ve just returned from the Constitutional Court in Jo’burg. Two days ago, 80 shack dwellers (and us) traveled overnight by bus to Jo’burg. After seven hours of singing, praying and not much sleeping, we arrived at the Constitutional Court – the highest court in South Africa. The shack dwellers were there to ask the Constitutional Court judges to declare the ‘Slums Act’ unconstitutional. The Slums Act is the provincial government’s most powerful weapon in its quest to ‘clear the slums’ by 2010, and among other things, gives the government permission to evict shack dwellers to ‘transit camps’ (government-built shacks on the urban periphery), and demolish new shacks.

It was awe-inspiring to hear the most respected judges in the land grilling the advocates about whether the government should take into account the needs of the poorest when deciding whether to evict people from their shacks. The courtroom was packed with shack dwellers old and young wearing red t-shirts that read: ‘from shack to Constitutional Court’. Surely their presence must have moved the judges? The judges seemed very divided, and so it may be many months before a decision is handed down. Nonetheless, the mood was joyful – simply being allowed to have their case heard has been a dream come true for them. Outside the Constitutional Court, in the shadow of Mandela’s old jail cell, the shack dwellers joined hands and prayed for a successful outcome.

High points:

- Super-advocate Wim Trengove arguing the case. Overhead outside the courtroom: “How did you get Wim Trengove on board?” He is a celebrity advocate here in South Africa: he argued successfully for the abolition of the death penalty, represented Nelson Mandela in his divorce action against his wife, Winnie, and prosecuted Jacob Zuma for alleged fraud.

- Justice Yacoob asking: ‘Is a shack a home?” Wim Trengove’s answer: “Yes, undoubtedly.” – The advocate representing the government leaving early (somewhat bashfully), while Wim Trengove was still arguing the case.

- Getting home and discovering that we shot 144 gigabytes of footage in one day! The hearing lasted the whole day, so we filmed it all. We have the only video footage of the entire hearing, since the court doesn’t record it themselves.