A case could be made for splitting up the (long) story of Daniel’s defence of Susanna over a number of days: people would come back to Mass each day to find out what happened next! We love courtroom dramas, the struggle that it entails between skilled lawyers, arguing over points of law and hopefully achieving justice.
South Africa’s history has often been made in court. It is a morally ambiguous history. Lawyers have had to use a range of tricks to bend the law to serve justice. Sometimes judges have used law to benefit the victims – or simply through a principled and fair application of the law have mitigated the political intentions of the state. It was the latter, not sympathy for the defendants, that led to the acquittals in the great Treason Trial of 1956-1961. The decision, too, to interpret law led to life sentences and not the death penalty for Mandela and others in the Rivonia Trial. (How different history might have been otherwise!).
Less happily, as the judiciary became more and more an organ of the Apartheid state, this independence declined – sometimes to the level of sick farce as the judgments exonerating the police from any culpability in the deaths of detainees Steve Biko and Neil Aggett illustrated. Even here, however, lawyers like Sydney Kentridge and George Bizos were able to present evidence in a public arena that, though they brought no justice to their clients, damned the state in the court of public opinion.
The law matters because it’s a way to achieve justice. And sometimes, as one sees in the way Jesus defended the woman caught in adultery, it may even be a means of mercy. We have learnt from Jesus that sometimes circumstances demand mercy not punishment.
In our society, where the law has too often failed to do justice, where it is all too frequently a tool of a ruling elite, subject to the ideologically driven whims of a ruling party, we need to preserve the independence of the judiciary. The appointment of ideologues and the willingness to adjust the laws to benefit the state security apparatus (as happened particularly from 1963 to 1994) must not be allowed to resurface in our democracy. That we are seeing this temptation being resisted after our period of State Capture is always a source of hope that justice will triumph in the end.