I Support Africa’s Supreme Court Judges’ Right to Wear Those Ridiculous Robes

There was an article making the rounds on social media last week querying why African judges still wear wigs 50 years after the end of colonization. The question remains a post-colonial conundrum: What is so appealing about the trappings of a judicial system that robbed an entire continent of its freedoms and imposed foreign laws and mores? Surely, it can’t be the horsehair wigs and the Santa-esque cloaks…so what could it be?

The answer is: We may never know. All we know is that yesterday’s colonial subjects and today’s adjudicators are vehemently opposed to anyone snatching their wigs, end of discussion!

In the same article, a prominent Ghanaian lawyer, Augustine Niber, was cited as saying that removing wigs would reduce the “intimidation and fear that often characterize our courtrooms.” Kenya’s new chief justice, David Maraga indicated that he wants to revert to the colonial traditions. He wants to take the country back to the “old days”.

These are the sentiments of people who romanticize the period of brutal colonization, when men enslaved on rubber plantations were forced to watch as their children’s limbs were hacked off for failing to haul in the day’s quota; when retired African soldiers in the Queen’s service could be fired upon for demanding their pensions; when empires were carved up and families were forever separated by borders and boundaries created for the benefit of the invader. There is absolutely no good reason that an African judge in pursuit of truth, justice and fairness would willingly adorn themselves in the garb of a parasite that represented the very opposite of those ideals during its presence on the Continent. But it is Lawyer Niber who gives us the best insight into why those ridiculous red robes and horrendous wigs are embraced by her colleagues: African courtrooms must be places of intimidation, not impartiality. They ought to be nondiscriminatory, instead from the clerk all the way up to the presiding judge often serve as an extension of the oppressive behavior that operates against the poor, disenfranchised and (relatively) powerless. It should shame any practitioner of the law to boast in their contribution to creating an intimidating and terrifying environment for any person(s) seeking a fair adjudication of their case!

Sorry. You ain’t intimidating nobody dressed up like the extras on the set of the Griswalds.

This is exactly how British courts operated on the Continent: to create a perception that each colonized subject of the Crown was inferior and not an equal citizen before the law. This modus operandi replicated itself all over the British colonies, from India to the Americas, right down to the southern tip of Africa. The brilliance wasn’t so much in the formula, but in the British government’s steadfast ability to repudiate any alterations to that formula. That resoluteness paid off again and again with stunning –and more importantly – predictable results. That result was absolute power in the form of control of the people’s minds. Often, people with an unquenchable thirst for power will emulate the behaviors of those that they recognize as having attained that power, even if it was used at one point to dominate them. In common parlance, “it is my to chop.”

So yes: As a group that has yet to break free from the mental shackles colonialism, I think that it is absolutely fine –if not fitting – that African judges continue to wear their Christmas carol robes and Scrooge McDuck wigs. It’s a reflection of the stagnation of the culture, and we have no business misrepresenting ourselves as more advanced that we truly are.

The webpage for the UK Courts and Tribunals Judiciary provides a brief but interesting history on the fashion evolution of England’s courts. Prior to the seventeenth century, lawyers were expected to appear in court with clean, short hair and beards. The wig was not adopted until the reign of Charles II, when all of polite society was expected to embrace and wear them. In short, African judges and their surrogates have a conjugal relationship with the sartorial choices of a long dead balding English monarch who attended to his royal duties dressed as Liberace. But like culottes and fanny packs, there are some things you will never (ever) be able to convince some people to let go of, no matter how much it dates them or how ridiculous it makes them look.

The overseers of Britain’s judiciary system saw to it that their attire changed to reflect the times and/or changes in court structure:

When county courts were created in 1846 the black gown was also worn. However, in 1915 Judge Woodfall suggested that a new robe – similar to those worn by High Court judges – be introduced.

A violet robe was chosen, faced – to distinguish it from the violet High Court robe – in lilac or mauve taffeta. A lilac tippet and black girdle also formed part of the costume, which due to wartime conditions did not become compulsory until 1919.

When the conditions of war precluded the use of taffeta and violet dye, the court managed to pivot and make allowances for it until it became more feasible. I would think in countries where the GDP is nothing to crow about, an expenditure of $6,500 per wig ought to make their use untenable. It is a misuse of resources, and the funds for purchase are not reinvested into local economies. To their credit, some African lawyers have boldly suggested that the attire be altered to reflect a new mindset, use material more conducive to life in hot, tropical climates and just…contemporary. However, it is no easy feat trying to convince people in power to attempt anything new…or anything that is going to make their lives easier. My local police station in South Africa still has a drawer labeled “printed emails to file.”

I don’t like the robes that our African judges wear. I think the wigs are silly and far from “intimidating”. These men and women look like toddlers dressing up in great-grandpa’s clothes. But that’s why I support their use. It reminds me that at the end of the day, even our most formidable citizens can be very much like our favorite cartoon characters.