Framing Human Dignity: Visual Jurisprudence at the Constitutional Court (2016)

Working Paper #12

Eliza Garnsey (Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge)

The South African Constitution affirms “the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom”. The Constitutional Court in Johannesburg was established as a key institution in South Africa’s new democracy. Built on the site of a former prison, the Court is not only distinctive architecturally including integrated artworks in the fabric of the building, it is a unique space by international comparison because it houses a large visual art collection developed by and for the Court—the core theme of which is respect for human dignity. Drawing on six months fieldwork at the Constitutional Court—which included fifty-four interviews with judges, staff, artists, advocates, and visitors to the Court—this paper examines the connections between human dignity and art at the Court. The aim is to investigate whether the realisation of human dignity by the Court, is disconnected from the aesthetics of the art collection. Is the performance of dignity in the art collection a utopian ideal, achievable objective, or unrealised potential? The art collection is a kind of visual jurisprudence which responds to, but also comprises, conceptions of human dignity as a right, a value and a touchstone of democracy—conceptions which are closely entwined with South Africa’s human rights governance, but that manifest in very different ways. The collection envisages the journey to human dignity as ongoing; it is promised but remains ungraspable. In this way, the Court is simultaneously a ‘good place’—a site constituting human dignity—and a ‘no place’, a prospect yet to be realised—a sight of human dignity. This tension is important in calibrating an idea of human dignity within a transitioning human rights discourse in South Africa.