The old Mbabane Courthouse


My mother told me I won a prize dressed as a kewpie doll at a baby show or Fancy Dress Party held in the Mbabane Court House in 1925. Thank goodness, I do not recall the great event! However, twenty-one years later I sat in the same courthouse dressed in black legal gown and white neckpiece carrying out the duties of Registrar of the High Court of Swaziland.

This entailed making documents available to the Honourable Judge and Assessors; swearing in witnesses; handing in trial exhibits as required and taking life seriously. (Actually, I was a Clerk grade 111 Acting Assistant Registrar and Master of the High Court, and responsible to a senior civil servant who was the true Registrar and Master) I shall return to this later.

I am writing about the decades before and just after WW 2. The point is, “everything” happened in the Old Court House, since for many years there was no other hall in Mbabane where public functions could take place. It was built during Edwardian times when Swaziland became a British Protectorate. It certainly existed in 1918 as evidenced by the photograph of de Symon Honey, the Resident Commissioner, addressing a parade commemorating the end of World War 1. The court house is shown in the picture of the populace seated on the veranda during Mr Honey’s address.

Let us say the people of Mbabane wished to organize a Dance or Ball, for whatever reason, it would be arranged in the Court House. Tickets to attend the event were sold beforehand, the proceeds of which, after deducting expenses, were usually given to a charity or to raise funds for a particular reason.The dais upon which the Judge’s bench, with it’s high red leather backed chairs, was dismantled and the chairs werestacked on the verandah-maybe they were set up on this space so that consumables for the ‘dinner dance’ could be laid out. Court room benches and chairs were arranged around the walls for seating.There were no separate tables provided for groups.  Ladies dressed up in their finery while the men wore dress suits with stiff white fronts. ‘Tails’ were not uncommon. Each person was presented with a nicely printed programme card and small pencil . Dances reserved for wife or partner were filled in on this card. Men would then approach other ladies with whom they wished to dance and both would fill in their cards accordingly. This gave the lady the opportunity to discreetly decline such an invitation if she so wished by looking at her card and saying unfortunately her card was already full! Incidentally it was quite acceptable to attend a dance even if you did not have a partner—the more the merrier! Refreshments could be obtained from Dickson’s Hotel [which later became The Central] just across the road from the Court House.

At that time inhabitants had to make their own forms of entertainment. The Mbabane Amateur Dramatic Society fulfilled this purpose by producing plays and concerts on a regular basis.The Judge’s dais made a useful stage although it was  rather narrow.The District Commissioner’s office, adjoining the Court House, became a convenient dressing room for the ladies but I do not remember how the men managed! Ingenious volunteers saw to the stage props, a workable curtain, make up needs and other concomitant needs of amateur dramatics. There were people who had had previous experience in this field and it is fair to claim that some good plays were put on by village enthusiasts. On one occasion a prominant member of society ‘lost’ his words but could not hear the prompt. He crossed ther stage and bellowed “speak up”, got it,  gave a little laugh and carried on with the play, much to the enjoyment of all.

The Court House was the venue for European Advisory Council Meetings. This was a body set up in the early 1920’s to represent the interests, mainly ,of the European commuity in Swaziland and to advise Goverment and bring to its  notice   matters of concern affecting development of the Country. Members were elected by secret ballot from each district. Heads of Government Departments also attended when their Departments were concerned, so that they could reply to questions and contribute to discussions. The Swazi had a diffent channel of contact with Government.

Public Meetings were also held in the Court House. For example, in my own memory, the first public meeting to introduce an irrigation scheme for the Malkerns area was held there in about 1946 but I do not recall the actual date. Then there was the inaugral meeting held in the Court House to consider the formation of the Mbabane Club and another to resuscitate The Swaziland Gymkhana Club. I am sure there were many other important meetings held there of which I have no knowledge.

Saturday night was bioscope night in the Court House. This was run by Mr Mills – that delightful character and owner of Mills’ Garage that kept our vehicles on the road. Projectors were housed in a structure outside the south facing wall and films shown through a window on to a screen  at the north facing wall. I think films were provided by African Consolidated Theatres. They were railed in rotation from one town to another in a given area. By the time the films reached Mbabane they had probably been misused elsewhere..shows would frequently be interrupted by breakages but, after a general groan, the audience would sit good naturedly while Aubrey Gould, the projectionist , made the necessary repairs. It occasioally happened that canisters containing the film reels got mixed up at a previous showing so that the scenes of a film were not always in the correct sequence— through no fault of Aubrey! The programme began with ‘Lantern slides’ of advertisements placed by businesses or anyone else. [ You want to arrange a dance? Advertise it at the bioscope!] Then news reels from Movietone and African Mirror were projected followed by a feature film of general interest and a cartoon; then Interval when one could nip across the steet to the hotel for a ‘nip’. To begin with films were only in ‘black and white’ and it was a great novelty when ‘colour films’ arrived. These were the days when the ‘colour bar’ existed. Many people not able to go inside stood on the verandah and watched the back of the screen through the windows of the building. I distinctly remember talking to our ‘cook boy’ about the various films and in particular scaring one another by re-enacting “Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde”. [sorry chaps, but that is how things were in those days!]

Then there was the Children’s Christmas Party held every year in the Court House. The population of Mbabane was small enough to give each child  a present at the Chistmas Tree erected in the Court House. Parents paid something to a fund to ensure their children were on the Christmas list. If parents could not afford it, their childen were added to the list anyway. A commitee of ladies would collect additional donations from well wishers and commercial houses towards the cost of buying presents. Some of these Father Christmas [often  Pop Mills] brought in a bag over his shoulder while the remainder, wrapped and with a tag of each child’s name attached were quietly placed at the foot of the tree. The children played organized games like “Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May”and others which I cannot call to mind. There was a feast of orange juice , cakes, scones and other ‘goodies’ like jelly in scooped out halves of orange peel. The games went on until someone, with great excitement, announced that a message had been received to say Father Christmas was on his way. The children and doting parents would rush outside to excitedly await his arrival – usually in a suitably decorated car. [I don’t know what happened to the reindeer—they probably succumbed to heat stroke in this climate] And at this point I must digress!

By about 1936 Mr Davis ,who owned the Central Hotel at the time, built a large Hall where all these activities took place. It was just after  WW2 that a memorable Christmas Tree party took place, but now it was in the hotel hall instead of the Court House. There was a ‘trapdoor’ at one end of the hall giving access to the rafters above the ceiling. Several Union Jack flags were draped in such a way as to hide this.. The idea was to dress Father Christmas in his traditional red and white robes, beard, gumboots, a pillow tied to his stomach to produce a typical rotund figure and a large buckled black belt. Napier Boyce, son of the local missionary, sportingly agreed to play the part. Just before Father Christmas was due to arrive he, behind Union Jacks ,climbed up into the roof unseen by the children. In the meantime a young lady who voluntarily conducted Sunday School sessions kept the children busy playing a variety of games. She was an experienced ‘conductor of games’ and the children enjoyed themselves immensely. It seemed that the lady enjoyed herself even more than the children, since when the time came to pull a string to release the flags so that Father Christmas could descend through the trapdoor, she just kept on playing, ‘just one more’ game after another. It was a hot sunny day and Napier must have been sizzling under that iron roof. Every now and then there would be a plaintive cry from him to untie the bloody flags so that he could come down—but no, just one more game! At last we prevailed upon our Sunday School teacher to call a halt to the games. We pulled a rope to drop the Union Jacks and through that trapdoor descended a very bedraggled, red faced, irate Father Christmas with red dye mixed with sweat running down his cheeks and hands. He grumbled and muttered his way across the hall to where the Christmas tree and presents were . He was in no mood to be sweet and charming and little girls had no wish to be kissed by such a cross red streaked sweaty face behind a discoloured red and white beard But the presents were the thing and Father Christmas dished them out with very poor grace, saying , or at least thinking “Here, take your present, you little brat!”  Now there happened to be a family called van Dyk who had about 9 children. Later the parents of one little girl asked  her how she had enjoyed the party. She replied that there were lovely things to eat and she liked her present but asked “Why does Father Christmas keep saying van Dyk, van Dyk for so long?”

Well, the hotel changed hands and the hall was made into a restaurant and lounge, so it was back to the Court House for bioscopes and other activities. But please fast backtrack to the beginning to be reminded of our Grade 3 clerk [ Acting Assistant Registrar and Master of the High Court, aged about 21] His father, Albert Millin, a much respected attorney often had to wind up deceased estates and by law had to have the documents and charges certified correct by the Master, who thought this situation amusing especially as his father had to show him the relevant Law Books from which to do the checking. Our eminent Master of the High Court of Swaziland very nearly received a clip on the ear when he jocularly refused to pass one of the documents!

Our hero was also Sheriff. On one occasion summons had to be served on someone in a remote area accessible only on horseback. The Sheriff arranged to do this on his girl friend’s off day at the hospital. They had a most enjoyable day out, riding in the Mbabane hills and then…he was entitled to claim horse allowance.

British Justice:  The Court House was of course built so that British Justice could be administered, mostly by District Commissioners, on a daily basis. Serious criminal and civil cases were reserved for the High Court Sessions held once or twice a year. Many of these involved culpable homicide and murder cases, especially for ritual murder. My father provided pro deo defense for indigent people over a period of  many years – for a pittance. Very often when an accused had to plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ he would plead guilty since he had in fact killed somebody, but he would not have understood the nuances of the Law. The death had probably occurred at a fight over a girl during a beer drink.His Honour the Judge was once heard to mutter to one of his assessors that “the plaintiff appears to rape rather easily”  Nevertheless the court put in a plea of ‘not guilty’ so that a proper trial could be held  to determine an equitable verdict and sentence. It is not pleasant to hear a man being condemned to death by hanging.

I recall one big case against a man called Mashayanyoni Fakude for ritual murder committed in a very remote area of Mankaiana.  I do not remember the details of the long trial. The accused dressed in an old overcoat and wearing a witch like hat looked really evil, with his small piercing eyes, drawn lips, pointed grey beard and wizened appearance. He was acquitted : whereupon he broke into a broad smile and this evil looking villain suddenly looked like a likeable benign little old man. I have never forgotten this changed demeanor of the accused, now a free man.

Another big case involved tin mining operations which caused dreadful soil erosion and pollution of  rivers. Farmers complained about this and the very well known, well liked and well respected manager of one of these operations was charged as a Test Case. It was a big affair. I reluctantly bring myself into this but as Sheriff I had to serve summons on the accused who had known me since birth and who was a great friend of my father, acting on his behalf. Council was brought down from Johannesburg to defend the accused while another advocate acted as Public Prosecutor. The legal wrangle eludes me but there was one amusing incident. A farmer living on a farm opposite that of the accused was a witness for the prosecution. He described in detail the terrible and unacceptable erosion on the hillside which spoilt his view. This, together with the harmful effect of the polluted river water on his animals, pumps and general water supplies devalued the value of his property. The defence led him on to elaborate on this theme, but then produced a recent copy of the Sunday Times in which appeared a large advertisement for the sale of his wonderful farm ‘with glorious panoramic views and plentiful water supplies from river frontage’. This caused quite some blustering on the part of the witness but I do not know to what extent it affected the case. At the end of it all the accused was found guilty, cautioned and discharged. However, this case put an end to tin mining in Swaziland as it was practiced at that time.

One evening during the trial there was quite a gathering of court officials, police officers who had come in from the districts for the High Court session and members of the public enjoying a social evening in the pub of a local hotel. On this occasion the Judge, who had been seconded from South  Africa to Swaziland for the sessions, was present as well as the Attorney General. Who should walk in but the accused. ? An awkward moment, as accused and Judge came face to face socially in off-duty hours. The accused, however, saved the day by saying [a trifle truculently, perhaps] “Good evening, Your Honour, what will you have?” but no matter, in the end British Justice was honourably administered,

We often had happy impromtu ‘hops’ to the music of records from a radiogram in the dear Old Mbabane Court House. With the coming of the Mbabane Club in about 1947 and,later, the building of a proper Cinema House and a  Theatre Club  the Old Court House was abandoned forentertainment purposes.  In the late 1950’s it’s final day arrived. It was demolished to make way forlarger modern offices and buildings. A fine ‘Palace of Justice’ was built elsewhere in Mbabane—but no dances, Christmas parties, bioscopes or other happy times will take place there; like they did in The Old Mbabane Court House.


Story by Peter Millin

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