The Western Cape High Court has its origins in the Supreme Court of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope, which was established on January 1, 1828 as the highest court of the Cape Colony.
It was created by the First Charter of Justice (Letters Patent) issued by King George IV on August 24, 1827. The original court was first built where the current slave lodge is situated at the entrance to the Company’s Garden on Adderley Street.
When the Union of South Africa was created in 1910, the Supreme Court of the Cape Colony was transformed by the South Africa Act, 1909, into the Cape of Good Hope Provincial Division of the new Supreme Court of South Africa.
Originally, the Cape Division had jurisdiction over the whole of the Cape Province, along with the Eastern Cape (Grahamstown) and Griqualand West (Kimberley) Local Divisions in their areas of jurisdiction.
In 2003, in terms of the Interim Rationalisation of Jurisdiction of High Courts Act, 2001, the area of jurisdiction of the Western Cape High Court was modified to coincide with the boundaries of the Western Cape. The Renaming of High Courts Act, 2008 renamed it to the Western Cape High Court, Cape Town. In 2013, in the restructuring brought about by the Superior Courts Act, it became the Western Cape Division of the High Court of South Africa.
Weekend Argus spent a morning with one of the longest-serving judges at the Western Cape High Court, Judge Seraj Desai, who shared some history of the building, its origins and highlighted some of its landmark rulings.
The court, as it was originally planned, should have faced Parliament, but an error by the construction team resulted in the steps facing Keerom Street.
“The builders made a mistake. The steps were meant to be in Victoria Street. It was important that the centres of power (the court and Parliament) face each other,” said the judge.
Judge Desai said Keerom Street had been an “obscure” little street frequented by sex workers and it was to this street that sailors flocked when they returned from their seafaring adventures.
A little-known fact is that the court is watched over by two gargoyles.
“Some say it’s to ward off evil, and others say it’s to divert rainwater to a specific point. Well that was the thinking in 1920.”
The High Court has 29 courtrooms and 33 judges. Judge John Hlophe was the first black judge at the Western Cape High Court. Judge Desai was the first coloured judge and Judge Janet Traverso was the first female judge.
In days of old, it was not only murder and rape trials which were heard at the High Court but even petty crimes like housebreaking and theft. These offences were later moved when the Regional Court came into existence.
Some of the landmark rulings that Judge Desai remembers include the 1951 ruling when coloured voters were removed from the roll. Daisy de Melker was the last woman to be sentenced to death in the Cape High Court. She was hanged in Pretoria on December 30, 1932.
“When I started here there was a story about Daisy still haunting the corridors of the Cape High Court,” said the judge, with a mischievous grin.
In modern times, the court sentenced the likes of Najwa Petersen for the murder of her husband musician Taliep Petersen, Dina Rodrigues for the murder of baby Jordan-Lee Norton and Henri van Breda for the murders of his family.
On the socio-political front, there was the ruling to legalise the use of cannabis which was brought before the court by a Rastafarian couple.
On the political front, the court recently ruled that the DA acted unlawfully when it removed Patricia de Lille as mayor of Cape Town.
Ending on a macabre note, Judge Desai added that between 1910 and 1989, approximately 2 000 hangings took place in South Africa.