I’ve never been to a criminal court. I’ve never been to any court for that matter. Sitting beside my boss I feel like I’m intruding upon a private affair and an odd sense of relief hits me once the judge walks in. As he strides past the pews to the front, the security guard muffles, to no one in particular, “Please rise.” I shift my weight forward to follow suit with those standing up around me and am surprised.
I never knew judges still wore long robes to court. I never knew that the accused remain a floor below until their hearing. I never knew a police officer accompanies each of them, one-by-one, up the stairs to take the stand. I never knew. I take it all in and soon realize, I’m the only one left standing. Embarrassed, I sit with more abruptness than grace and the proceedings continue without pause in Xhosa.
With each punctuating click I kick myself over my embarrassing claim to so-called “conversational Spanish” and think, 11 official languages in this country and I speak but a single one. Turning my attention to vague hand gestures and vacant head nods, I lean back into my chair and zone out until a lingering silence demands my attention.
The accused turns back to face the audience and the weight of a question rests upon our shoulders. Even I, unaware of what was asked, feel its weight. My boss whispers, “The judge has asked if anyone has come to pay her bail of 300 Rand.” Silence. I see the young woman scan the audience. She does so indifferently, as if told to do so, not as if she’s actually looking for someone. It seems she already knows – no one is there. The judge scribbles a note and the security guard accompanies the young woman back into police custody. My boss signals for us to leave and once in the hallway I ask,
So without bail what happens?
She’ll be held in prison for the next 5 months. Then, her trial will be brought before the judge again in November.
It sinks in; 300 rand is the equivalent of $30. For this, she will spend almost half a year of her life behind bars. Regardless of what she was being accused of, it was painful to watch.
We always talk about loosely defined terms such as “disadvantaged” or “vulnerable’ populations and in that moment it became all too clear. These labels refer not only to a lack of financial resources but also to a lack of substantial social support networks to lean on -People who lack not only a savings account but also a family, a partner, someone to turn to. In a country where a quarter of women face unemployment, the fact that she could not afford her bail did not surprise me. The fact that no one was even there for her in court broke my heart.