The men and women with the gowns and wigs are traditionally stoic. Emotionless, they sit and hear the most gruesome and tragic of tales in excruciating detail, again and again and pronounce difficult judgments. Mmegi Correspondent, TUMELO MOUWANE, peers behind the veil
“You are sentenced to death by hanging.”
“You are not to make any contact or communication with your spouse until the court orders so.” “You are sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.’’ “This marriage has been legally dissolved, parties to share property equally.” Everyday, members of the judiciary at various levels pass difficult judgements, including the ultimate one, the death sentence. They do not live in their chambers. They get up after these trying decisions and go home. They have husbands, wives, children, relatives and friends. They too, are members of the community, but unlike the rest of us, they are not allowed to show any weakness when confronted with the growing emotional and psychological burden life and work pile on us.
For these men and women, the photographs of murder victims remain in their minds long after the cases are done. The faces of heartbroken victims and families, including children linger, while the graphic details of post-mortems penetrate even those who have become desensitised by the job.
Magistrates and judges do not enjoy the liberty to discuss their stresses at leisure, as their duties require the utmost discretion and the avoidance of any perception of partiality or bias.
Which is why the Administration of Justice (AoJ)’s recent Wellness Day came as a welcome break for many of them, as they gathered from all over the country to interact as peers, share anecdotes, play games and have a drink away from their punishing jobs.
From the day-to-day interaction with hardened criminals, the members of the AoJ had a respite and could safely enjoy the camaraderie of their colleagues in a sort of grim support group.
Some of the members took Mmegi into their confidence about their experiences.
Lobatse chief magistrate, Mareledi Dipate explains that while the job carries inherent risks, one has to balance that reality with the fact that at the end of the day, one is a human being with a social life.
“I have 11 years experience in this profession and I have survived successfully through the years.
“I am aware of the risks associated with my job, but after all, I am human and I have a social life.
“With me, I try to balance the two. I am not really hard on myself. I socialise well in public spaces and of course sometimes I meet the same individuals who I have dealt with in court but I handle such situations well.”
Quizzed on how he survives hearing testimonies of excruciating ordeals, Dipate says over the years, he has developed an “anti-work related stress mechanism” which allows him to cope.
“In the beginning, I was not comfortable, which is true for everyone. However, as the years went by, I naturally developed a mechanism which stops work-related stress away from bothering me.
“Currently I have a trainee magistrate who in some instances cannot cope with the testimonies she hears in court. She feels she is going too deep into people’s personal lives.
“However, it’s part of the work. That’s how it is. You develop that ‘anti-stress mechanism’ along the way,” he says.
“There are no counselling facilities within our administration blocks and I think it is high time we have that. Our court reporters sometimes have a hard time dealing with sensitive issues.
“One other thing is that, some perpetrators sometimes confuse a magistrate with a translator, meaning the risks which should rightfully face me, now face them. Counselling is necessary in our institution and that must be put in place.
A court reporter speaking on condition of anonymity says her faith in God has helped her over the years. She has adapted as well.
“I have done this job for 15 years. When I began, I sometimes couldn’t sleep due to cases I had handled that day. However, I got closer to God and I didn’t quit until I became used to the environment.
“Counselling is essential and in fact, the time has long passed for such to be availed to our institutions.”
During last year’s Wellness Day at the Lobatse High Court, Mmegi caught up with Justice Abednego Tafa, the most senior judge in the jurisdiction.
“In court you deal with people with different characters. Some are hardened criminals who have no respect for either you as a judge or the law itself.
“At the same time, you need to make everyone feel at home and be patient. You also need to make people feel the severity of the law on the other hand.
“We adjudicate in cases such as murder and sometimes you have to pass a death sentence regardless of your religion. It will keep on reflecting in your mind and sometimes lead to stress and sleepless nights.
“I don’t regret being a High Court judge, but this is a concern.”
According to Tafa, workload-related stress is also an issue in the judiciary, requiring occupational health counselling facilities. He too, says counselling services are long overdue in the courts.
“I can spend the day in court listening to witnesses and compile a judgment on the same evening to avoid work piling up. This is something that deprives one of family time.
“It is high time, in fact, it is has long been overdue for us to have guidance and counselling departments in our courts.
“Our staff suffer a lot of stress. The only available counselling structure is at the Gaborone High Court but counselling is only administered on physically ill patients.
“Being a judge is a very tough and demanding assignment.”
Lobatse High Court deputy registrar and master, Felicity Sigweni says brutal criminal cases bring great trauma to staff and it is very hard to cope.
“The court deals with heartbreaking cases which involve children and sometimes very extreme situations such as domestic violence and brutal criminality.
“There are cases, for example, of brutal murder where graphic content is displayed.
“The judge, the court reporters and others are traumatised on a daily basis because of the extremes and because they are also human. It is very hard to cope with the stress.”
It is hoped the silent cry for help within the judicial walls will be heeded.