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Of black judges and white wigs

Opinion & Analysis
WE were supposed to have discussed the 2017 Kenya electoral challenge this week but the thinking was that it would be untimely without knowing the ruling on the presidential election challenge which went in President Emmerson Mnangagwa's favour.

WE were supposed to have discussed the 2017 Kenya electoral challenge this week but the thinking was that it would be untimely without knowing the ruling on the presidential election challenge which went in President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s favour. Apologies to anyone who may have been expecting the discussion as promised. In light of the interest generated by the court case and other goings on in the courtroom, we look at one seemingly petty aspect, but which generated a lot of interest and became the subject of much mirth and questions. There was a lot of talk about the funny white wigs worn by judges and what they were for and why they are worn at all. A number of people found them irreverent and utterly ridiculous for black African people in a post-independence era to still be clinging onto colonial vestiges. The question that carried the day is how they originated and why the judges simply just don’t stop wearing them and if it would interfere with their work if they did or offend or prejudice anyone. I embarked upon a little online research into the history of judges’ wigs, lawyers garb and other little weird things that go on in court.

Guest: column: MIRIAM T MAJOME

History of the wig

Judges’ wigs ostensibly clothe them with anonymous neutral authority. It represents symbolic detachment because by wearing it a judge is making a public and personal commitment to being impartial and avoiding personal involvement matters before them. The wig also confers an air of dignity, seriousness and sombreness befitting of court proceedings. The wig originated in Britain in the 17th century, but from very early times judges had worn head gear in the form of black caps or bonnets. The earliest wigs were made from 100% powdered white or grey Caucasian hair. The hair was sold to wigmakers by desperate people who were in debt and needed to raise money to pay off the debts, but with time this practice was deemed unethical. The 100% human hair wig was used for about 200 years more until the early 1800s when it was re-designed using horse hair because of the problems of human hair. The human hair wigs needed too much tedious care and maintenance. They had to be kept curly all the time to maintain that particular short curly tight appearance. They also attracted lice which would often be found crawling all over courtrooms. They were itchy and smelly such that courtrooms were unpleasant smelly places. Horse hair was less problematic and maintenance-free except for a wash. Litigants and courtroom visitors no longer need to worry about the judge’s smelly hair and catching the judicial lice. The judges could also concentrate on hearing matters with greater concentration than fighting off the natural urge to wrench the wig off and give their scalp a good old well-deserved scratch. In Britain, wigs are no longer worn in some courts except for special occasions in the British court calendar.

Dispensing with the wig

It cannot be possible that all judges like wearing the present wigs or that they feel absolutely comfortable wearing them. However, the garb comes with the territory and it will take a strong movement of probably younger judges with strong voices to re-think the white wigs. In Britain the home of the wig there have been calls to dispense with them. Those opposed to them consider them silly and stuffy and intimidating and set a wedge between ordinary people and judges. Some investigative research looking into the wig issues was conducted and a consultation paper presented in the British parliament in 1992.

Opinion over the wig has been sharply divided for a long time, with traditionalists wanting to preserve them while reformers wanted to dispense with them sometimes coming close to success depending on the strength of the mobilisation.

In 2007 there was a pronouncement made that they would be done away with in civil courts but this was met with resistance. Another survey revealed that around 10 000 of the 15 000 barristers surprisingly wanted to retain the wigs, and so the idea to discard them is on hold.

African practicalities

For a long time there have been calls of varying success in African former British colonies to discard the wigs altogether. Zimbabwe is one of the African countries whose judges of superior courts still wear them alongside Nigeria, Ghana and Tanzania to cite a few examples. The wigs are criticised as being an embarrassing colonial legacy relic that does nothing for African pride. They are deemed as a symbol of oppression because very harsh judgments against Africans were passed by white judges wearing those same wigs under the colonial partisan judiciary. It is heartening that Kenyan Supreme Court judges no longer wear the wigs.

They are obviously unsuited for the very warm to hot tropical weather conditions in Africa, bearing in mind how hot and sweltering courtrooms can be.

However, some judges in African countries seem to like them and even defend them, otherwise they would have dispensed with them if they wanted. Ostensibly they represent authority, success, superiority, separateness, austerity and other traits that distinguish judges from ordinary people. The wig preserves a required modicum of aloofness and staid dignity to the judiciary.

Some judges argue that the wigs no longer have anything to do with the colonial past, but have simply become uniforms to which no other inference should be attached. They argue that they are just a part of judiciary garb.

This may be grudgingly accepted but the question would be why they cannot adapt the headgear to make it more in tune with the environment and racial context. There surely must be a more politically correct way such as ordering wigs made with black or brown horse hair or have them made in some acceptable Afro-based format.

There is never a shortage of creativity and ideas. There must be a better way because white wavy hair on black men and women does not sit so comfortably on the eye and conscience. It is hard for ordinary people who are not lawyers to take black people in curly white wigs seriously.