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The law is not cast in stone


The Hittites, Mesopotamians and the Hebrews all have religio-historical accounts of how they were handed a set of divine laws by their supreme deity and how these laws were cast in stone.

Because of the supremacy of Hebrew traditions over the other two, people are naturally more aware of the Biblical account written by Moses in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

Many Christian preachers – perhaps excluding those more inclined to this emerging phenomenon of the “prosperity Gospel - love the Old Testament for its descriptive nature.

Who can resist standing before an enthralled congregation and telling them of how in Exodus Chapters 19 to 21 God descended on Mt Sinai, also known as Mt Horeb, and there were “thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud”

 as God descended.

The purpose of that descent from Heaven, as Christians and Biblical scholars will well know, was to give humanity the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments.

The manner in which the commandments were given was as important as their content. A statement had to be made; an impression had to be created; the Children of Israel must be left in no doubt as to the might of the God they worshipped and the importance of the words he was about to give them.

Hence, the thunders, lightning, exceedingly loud trumpet and thick cloud, as well as the ritual cleansing that preceded the approach to Mt Sinai.

Similarly, how the Ten Commandments were to be stored and treated by the Children of Israel were of equal importance.

Thus God wrote them with his own finger on two stone tablets and thereafter directed that the tablets – which had to be replaced after Moses shattered the originals when he found the fickle Children of Israel worshipping a golden calf – be kept in the Ark of the Covenant.

God was making a statement when he chose the manner in which he descended on Mt Sinai, when he chose stone tablets as the best materials on which to write the Law, and when he chose that they be kept in the Ark of the Covenant, which was made according to excruciatingly precise specifications.

Perhaps God chose stone tablets, which I am inclined to think were not light to carry around, to symbolise what we often refer to as the “weight of the law”.

That is open to conjecture and – maybe – idle academic discussion.

What I think though is that God was making a statement of permanence, which is why we talk of rules, laws, decisions and verdicts being “cast in stone”.

That phrase – cast in stone – has a ring of finality to it. It speaks of something that cannot and will not be altered, something that you must live with regardless of how weighty it is.

When it comes to religion, laws tend to be cast in stone otherwise the flock will bend, break and burn those laws that they do not like and substitute them with new ones.

The secular laws of the land, on the other hand, are another matter.

Of course, it would be folly to etch Constitutions and Acts of Parliament on stone tablets and surround their unveiling with the same drama that accompanied the events on Mt Sinai those four or five-odd thousand years ago.

We write these things on pieces of paper and announce them through the mundane process of publishing in a government gazette or whatever other means each state chooses.

Rather boring and impermanent ‑ like much of all other human activity.

It also means that laws are not permanent and that we change and modify them to suit our circumstances.

Referring back to the Bible – and forgive me if my interpretation of Paulian theology is not spot on – it means that people cannot live by permanent laws and expect to meet them perfectly all the time for the simple reason that we are not perfect.

A colleague of mine prefers to put it thus: “Laws are made for people; people are not made for laws!”

Which brings me to Judge Hans Fabricius of the North Gauteng High Court in South Africa.

A couple of weeks ago, this learned man of the law and member of the bench decided that South African courts should prosecute Zimbabweans in South Africa for alleged human rights abuses in Zimbabwe relating to the 2008 general election.

This was after an application seeking just that by a body that calls itself the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC).

There was something about the timing of the application soon after the placement on ice of the SADC Tribunal over its handling of the Zimbabwe land reform issue and other matters of concern to regional governments that makes one think that this is all part of a co-ordinated attempt by rightwing elements to use the courts to constrain the government in Harare.

Technically and legally, the two cases are separate matters, but from an ideological point of view, it is hard to separate the two.

Nathaniel Manheru calls it the “legal arm for the enforcement and protection of white rights in post-colonial, post-apartheid Southern Africa”.

If SALC and company are so keen on human rights, why have we not heard them speaking about the abject conditions in which millions of poor South Africans live in today because of apartheid?

Why have they not been eager to lend their towering legal expertise to all those people who today live without limbs because of colonial landmines and who are in ill-health because apartheid mines sucked the life out of them as the gold went to build the empires we call De Beers and Anglo American?

Why have they not put their brilliant minds to the noble cause of approaching courts in other countries to prosecute the criminals of apartheid who today live in blissful luxury simply because they were compelled to confess some of their sins before Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

Anyway, we are all aware that this will never happen because it does not serve white interests to dredge up colonial wrongs, but it certainly does serve their interests to get rid of President Robert Mugabe’s government by any means necessary.

And we shall increasingly see recourse to the courts of law, many of which are manned and manipulated by the same brilliant legal minds who oversaw apartheid “justice” delivery.

What African governments should learn from these brilliant legal minds who have found it as easy to apply apartheid “justice” delivery as post-colonial justice delivery is that the law is not cast in stone.

Pray, why are we not changing the laws and rules of the game to suit the post-colonial and post-apartheid circumstances we find ourselves in?

Have we taken it upon ourselves to be mini-gods here in Africa and cast useless laws in stone?