Bloemfontein

The seat of the Supreme Court of Appeal

With the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the four colonies vied for their respective capitals to be the capital of the country. The problem was resolved by designating Cape Town the legislative, Pretoria the administrative, and Bloemfontein the judicial capital. Bloemfontein is the capital of the Free State and is about 400km south-west from Johannesburg. The seat of the Court did not find favour with the first judges, especially, the first Chief Justice. Having opened the court formally in Bloemfontein on 4 June 1910, he contrived to hear appeals in Cape Town. This disregard of the constitution gave rise to dissatisfaction and an amendment which nearly led to De Villiers's resignation. In 1933 the editor of a local newspaper was found guilty of contempt of court, having published a letter which was highly critical of the Court using a venue other than Bloemfontein. The anonymous letter had in fact been written by the local judge president. Since then, the Court has hardly, if ever, sat elsewhere than in Bloemfontein.

The Court building

The Court initially used accommodation in the Raadsaal, a building across the road from the east of the current court building. The Raadsaal is now the seat of the provincial legislature of the Free State. The first and only court building was opened on 1 October 1929 and was extended during 1967. The building is said to have been built in a free Renaissance style. The old part was built with sandstone from Ladybrand and the newer eastern wing with sandstone from Ficksburg, next to the Lesotho Border in the Eastern Free State. All new additions subsequently to the building were similarly clad. The furniture and wall cladding in the two main courts and the library are in stinkwood (ocotea bolata), a scarce and valuable indigenous tree. Above the main entrance and in stone is the helmet and armour of truth, the keys of emancipation from tyranny, and the lamp and torches of truth. The south entrance has the head of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and protector of art and science, and the northern door, that of Jupiter.

The Library

The elegant library, housed on the upper floor of the building, itself occupies two stories. It consists of a single chamber with alcoves on either side and a gallery reached by two narrow winding staircases which extends around all four of its sides. The coats of arms in the centre of the gallery are those of the four erstwhile provinces of South Africa and are modelled in plaster and finished in colour. The shelves are of Burmese teak and form a series of bays furnished with stinkwood tables and chairs and armchairs upholstered in brown Morocco hide. The gallery rests on 12 pillars. The library was also extended as part of building renovation. The library houses approximately 43 000 volumes, of which about 4000 titles are ‘old authorities’ which consist, for the most part, of the writings of the Dutch and Continental jurists of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The two oldest works in the library are both dated 1544. These are the complete works of Bartolus (1313-1357) in 10 volumes and those of his pupil, Baldus. Written in Latin, they provide a commentary on the Corpus Juris Civilis of the Emperor Justinian. Other unique item is the Tractatu Universi Juris, compiled at the end of the 16th century on the instruction of Pope Gregory. These works are not merely of antiquarian interest. Given the unique status of the 'old' authorities in the South African legal system, they are still consulted and occasionally referred to in judgments of the court. The library contains a comprehensive collection of South African textbooks and a fairly representative spread of Anglo-American and Continental court reports, textbooks and legal periodicals. It is at present attempting to improve its collection of constitutional and international law works. It is customary for academics to donate copies of their legal treatises to the library. In the library there are several busts. The judicial career of Sir John Gilbert Kotzé (1849-1940) spanned 50 years from his appointment in 1877, when he was a mere 27 years old, until his retirement in 1927. As chief justice of the Transvaal Republic he was dismissed by President Kruger when he held that the courts had the right to test against the Constitution, and declare invalid, resolutions and acts passed by the legislature. A noted scholar, a man of immense learning and a collector of books, his collection of 1556 titles, bought by the government in 1927 for £800, formed the nucleus of the then fledgling library of the Appellate Division, and is still retained as a separate collection.


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