The relationship of South Africa with her judges is established—the judge is honored and revered above all, by everyone regardless of race. And since he doesn’t make the laws, but enforces them, even his enforcement of an unjust law is justice.
The convoluted, twisted cycle of South African race and politics is highlighted by this description of the judges. The white leaders free themselves from blame for the unjustness of their society by claiming that they themselves did not make it unjust, and so they follow the law rather than addressing the problem or being merciful.
The murder trial of Absalom Kumalo begins. The charges of murder are laid before the court and the accused. Absalom pleads guilty to culpable homicide, but not murder. That is, he committed the act, but did not intend to murder. The other two men, including his cousin, plead not guilty.
Further underlining the problems with the system is the fact that Absalom’s honesty will not serve him at all, but his co-conspirators’ lies will help them to wriggle out of punishment.
Absalom and the prosecutor have a long exchange about the details of the day of the murder. He asks Absalom why that day was chosen, what events transpired. Absalom answers the questions straightforwardly, repeatedly implicating the other two men as co-conspirators. He describes how they had been told that no one would be in the house, how startled they’d been when they’d realized that the servant was home, and how they had to knock him unconscious. And then how Arthur came downstairs, and how, in fear, Absalom had shot him.
Again, the straightforwardness of Absalom’s testimony seems like it will be a boon, but it will not help him at any point.
After talking about Arthur’s death and Absalom and his accomplices’ subsequent flight, the judge interrupts the prosecutor and asks Absalom why he was carrying a gun in the first place. Absalom says that he was told that Johannesburg was a dangerous place, and bought the gun for protection. The judge leads Absalom through a line of questioning about what he had planned to do with the revolver. Was it just meant to frighten? Did it have bullets in it? Did he know it had bullets in it? So he planned on shooting someone? Would he have shot at a cop? Why did he shoot this decent man? Absalom reveals that the gun had originally held two bullets, but that he’d shot one into a tree for target practice.
The judge’s line of questioning seems to lead Absalom to admitting what appears to be greater culpability than he has. It has already been established that the judge is not truly impartial, since he is the righteous enforcer of an unjust system.
When the prosecutor resumes questioning, Absalom continues to insist that the other two men were with him. He also tells the court that after the murder, he buried the revolver in the ground, and then prayed for forgiveness. Afterwards, when the police came searching for one of his co-conspirators, Absalom confessed to having shot Arthur, since he had repented for his sin and had sworn to not do evil again.
Ironically, the police were not even looking for Absalom when they found him. It was only Absalom’s honesty, and resolution to sin no more, that led to his confession and arrest.
Court is adjourned for the day, and after the judge leaves, the whites and backs file out separate doors. Stephen notices that James, the father of the man Absalom killed, is there in the court. Stephen looks away, because he cannot bear to see him.
The customs of this broken land have been repeatedly enforced throughout the trial, and continue to be.