Sitting on a hill overlooking the city of Johannesburg is Constitution Hill, the site of the notorious Old Fort Prison Complex and the South African Constitutional Court. With the high walls and barbed wire of the former prison standing in contrast with the modern architecture of the Court, Constitution Hill recalls both the brutality and oppression of the apartheid regime and the long struggle for a democratic state. Themes of freedom, equality and justice are prominent throughout the site, with heavy cell doors and barred windows giving evidence of just how easily your freedom and dignity can be taken away.
Our visit to Constitution Hill began with a lecture given by Simon Adams in the hospital wing of the women’s prison. This lecture, on the history of South Africa and particularly the apartheid regime, gave insight into the complex history of the nation, and the significance of the Old Fort Prison and adjacent Constitutional Court. Political opposition to State rule and the apartheid regime was harshly penalised with many of the accused being imprisoned in severe, inhuman conditions at the Old Fort Prison. Throughout the prison are testimonies by former inmates and wardens, offering a glimpse into the severe penalties for dissent. Torture and brutality, sometimes to the point of death, were commonplace, especially for the white men housed in the Old Fort and the black prisoners held separately in block Number Four. The stark, cold halls of these prison blocks recall the cruel and oppressive nature of apartheid, a regime which subjected the majority of South Africa’s people to a legislated policy of racial segregation and dehumanisation.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the tour was the visit to the Constitutional Court. The construction of the Court in the mid-1990s transformed Constitution Hill from a site of extreme brutality and injustice to a place symbolic of the solidarity and equality that was so passionately fought for in the struggle against apartheid. The bricks that form the walls of the Court – the highest court in the country – originated from the former prison, and a large window close to the ceiling offers a view of a stairwell from the prison, reminding all in the court of the past conflict. The glass windows which cut through the brick perimeter of the court are symbolic of the transformation of the site, with the brutality that occurred behind the prison walls having been replaced with the transparency of the new Court. The judge’s platform is located at a height lower than the highest seating in the public gallery in order to foster a sense of equality, and the black-and-white Nguni cowhide that lines their bench is symbolic of both individuality and uniformity across the judges. The architecture, layout and décor of the Constitutional Court, as well as the museum exhibitions within the prison, represent the transformation of South Africa from a place of unjust segregation to a democratic State that was determined to forge a new path toward equality. Although the struggle for equality continues in South Africa, Constitution Hill stands overlooking Johannesburg as a symbol of how far the nation has come, and serves as a reminder of a dark history that ought never to be repeated.
The Old Fort stood guarded as ever. Walking towards the entrance I remained unsure about what to expect. Notorious for its treatment of prisoners, the walls which now surrounded me became more than walls, the doors: symbols of closure, the exhibitions: testament to the inability to forget. Listening to the guide I became encapsulated in an environment I knew I would never truly understand. ‘Barred’ from the sanction of my own thoughts, the brutal reality of history caused me to hesitate. Processing the atmosphere remained as ambiguous as the events that led people to their fate. Stepping in cells no larger than a single bed added a level of humility: the worn fortification similar to the slow degradation of prisoners and their ability to maintain face. Ancillary to the bigger picture, the Old Fort served not only as a reminder of the past but also a pathway to the future. Step by step I traced the footsteps of people with no bigger feet than my own, but their mark much larger. Cell after cell I entered with ‘tag lines’ representing a small reminder of the pain and suffering these ‘soldiers’ endured. Time seemed to linger as I continued my journey. My eyes turned to the colour-contrasting walls that appeared to be closing in. ‘Black’ and ‘white’ seemed to be ironic for a period of history which contained so many shades of grey. The nature of the discourse emphasised the ambiguity of simply dividing a period into ‘non-violent’ and ‘violent.’ The ongoing burden became heavy by standing amongst the tarnished concrete. Brick by brick I constructed my thoughts once again after the period of sombreness. Isolation appeared to be yet another contrast amidst vast occasions of mass civil disobedience, as well as the ‘unification’ of ‘coloured’ peoples. Moving forward, I made my way to the Constitutional Court: a symbol of the country’s progress yet a reminder of where they once stood. Driven by values that once deprived the country’s majority, the overt exhibition of diversity and integrity made me question the current state of world issues. Progress is a relatively small world that often comes as a result of ‘large’ issues, yet I found it difficult not to draw parallels with the lack thereof in other predicaments. My eyes grew weary after pacing the halls lined with cold concrete. The last glimpse of the pile of rubble signified for me, the everlasting dedication of the soldiers that will forever continue to fight. Where to from here? The staircase suggested up, however undoubtedly the land on which I now stood insinuated that there are many more steps to be taken on this ‘long walk to freedom.’
Many may question why as a black South African I would want to study the history of South Africa? Do I not know it, is it not what I have been taught all my life and is it not who I am? My answer to this is simple; I do not define myself by my history nor am I a product of my history but what I am is a young, driven proud black South African woman whose life has been shaped and influenced by my country’s history.
Upon arrival at the Constitutional Hill, I was quickly reminded of the past. The Constitutional Hill was first built in 1893 and during the Boer War was then turned into a prison during the Apartheid era. This was where whites, blacks, Indians and Coloureds were arrested for all crimes such as murder, for breaking pass laws and burglary to mention a few. This building represents the pain, the suffering and the struggle of my parents. I slowly felt myself drift into hatred as I saw image after image of my people being tortured and slaughtered by the white man. It made me question, what is it about my skin that made the white man hate it so much? Then it dawned on me, this is HISTORY. Times have changed and things are no longer black and white.
We are now living in the new South Africa, in which the prison is no longer functioning as a prison since 1983 but instead what stands in its place is the Highest Court in South Africa, known as the Constitutional Court. Here cases such as the abolishment of the death sentence, same sex marriages, prisoners right to vote and e-tolling are discussed. From the way it is structured, from its foundations and to the way in which it is run, this court to me embodies reconciliation, justice and forgiveness.
The foundations of the Court are built on the area of the prison which was known as the waiting room. Some of the stairs of the waiting room have been kept in order to keep with the theme of not forgetting our past and remembering how far we have come. The same bricks that were from the prison have been preserved and reused in building the walls of the court. As a way of portraying freedom, the bricks are not plastered and therefore have breathing room. Glass is used on the roof to allow for sunlight which fits in theme of the whole court which is storytelling in a true African way, under the trees. There are pillars at the entrance which are at an angle representing tree branches and the print on the carpets inside the court room look like they are shadows. There is a thin line of glass where people inside the court can see outside presenting the idea of transparency. The black and white Nguni cow skin on the chairs of the judges, each has different white patterns portraying the individuality that each judge has and the black displaying unity. There are rooms where interpreters for each of the 11 official languages sit, so that each group is accommodated for. The level of seating of the judges represents equality as the public members are seated above the judges unlike most courts where it is the other way around.
This structure to me presents reconciliation on a whole new level, where difference is embraced and the past is understood in order to build the future. “Let justice be administered in this Court without fear, favour or prejudice”
Being led throughout the well preserved Johannesburg Prison on a cloudless South African day, I couldn’t help but notice the unsettling and out of place serenity. In each section of the men and women’s prison, art, sculpture and visual symbolization featured. From sculptures carved from soap bars and the Sunday blanket model competitions to the contemporary “Expressions of Freedom” display of post-Apartheid artwork, I saw art used to communicate and express ideas as well as providing a psychological escape from the mental trauma inflicted upon prisoners and Apartheid survivors.
As I viewed each individual work throughout the tour, I experienced an array of emotions. While I think we were all affected at least once, we barely scratched the surface in regard to the emotional reality experienced by the black and white, male or female, convicted murderers or political activists imprisoned there. The blankets molded into couches and tanks evoked a child-love joy through the sheer novelty of their creations yet at the same time, one couldn’t help but feel conflicted as well, knowing the exhibition opposite displayed tools of torture.
In the claustrophobic isolation rooms, carvings on the back of the thick metal door were barely visible due to a lack of sunlight penetrating the grated window. As you closed the door, shutting yourself inside the narrow cell, the frenzied carvings highlighted the insanity some prisoners inevitably faced.
At the end of the harrowing tour, we parted ways with our guide at the triumphant Constitutional Court. The name, “Constitutional Court” was colourfully written in the 11 official languages of South Africa while the imposing wooden doors showed sign language. Unity through diversity seemed to be the heart and soul of the Court and inspired the foundations it was built on.
To the right of the Court, a disturbing statue sat, showing one large man on all fours dragging a cart attached to him like an animal, while three smaller men rode on the car, two of whom sat on the third who was also on all fours, reduced to an inanimate object. It was a confronting portrayal of South African history, a history in which supposed society progress came at the expense or rather rode on the back of oppressed others. However, I believe that there was also hope portrayed. The large man on all fours was moving forward, albeit slowly, presumably towards liberation and equality, while his size suggests that he cannot be broken and will not be defeated in the face of such treatment.
Once inside the Court, a foyer was decorated with modern interpretations of the native South African flora. The variation of colour and medium used to construct the trees and branches I believe suggests the rightful connection that all South Africans have to the land, regardless of ancestry, race or class.
The Court itself oozed of symbolism. The reconstituted bricks, themselves now liberated from their original purpose in prison structures, were literally the building blocks of the past the new South Africa had to grow from. The beaded flag, 6 feet long, shimmered slightly when it caught the light and was impossible not to admire. Heavy use of glass within the Court represented the transparency of the post-Apartheid justice system, while the seats of the various judges were on equal level with a balcony behind them for the general public who could look down on the judges who represented the newfound and celebrated equality. The desks for the judges on the other hand, were covered in a cowhide unique to South Africa. Each judge had its own panel of hide and the dominant colour, black, on each panel showed the unity between them while the white patterns on each respective panel also showed the importance of individuality and the right of each citizen to individuality.
For me, the art works I saw on Constitutional Hill were not bloodthirsty, demanding eye-for-an-eye type redemption, but portrayed a celebration of what the country as a whole had achieved in terms of liberty and equality. I believe that this celebration and focus on the positives to come form post-1994 South Africa promise a stable nation and a preservation of freedom and equality for generations to come.
Although I had previously visited Constitutional Hill on a trip in 2010 I was no less astounded by the symbolism of hope it provided for South Africa and the lessons to be learnt from its brutal past under apartheid. Beginning in the women’s section of the prison I was able to appreciate the great sacrifice and role of women, both black and white, in enabling their ideology of a unified South Africa to come to fruition. The sacrifice of these women should not be held in any lower esteem than the men in the cause for equality in society in what has been traditionally portrayed as a male dominated struggle for freedom. In these cold and now barren cells it is hard to comprehend the life these inmates must have experienced along with their determination to defy an oppressive government. Staring into the cells there is a great sense of futility, trapped in an empty room surrounded by cold stone and iron bars. Yet these prisoners endured and were willing to risk their freedom time and time again. The isolation cells had contained great women such as Albertina Sissulu and Winnie Mandela, determined as much as their husbands to the cause they believed in. The humiliation and degradation through cold public showers and vaginal search methods to banning shoes and underwear exemplify an effort by the state to break their spirit and take away their humanity as these individuals were rightly a threat to the current establishment.
The men’s section named Number Four was no less oppressive during this tour. Barbed wire crowns brick walls that overlook cells of concrete and iron. Again humiliation was a tool used to relay inferiority to the black prisoners from restricted diets compared to white prisoners and naked searches in the public square. The complete disregard for hygiene of the prisoners also expresses a deep resentment based on race, taking away any sense of civility these men experienced outside prison. But what is inspiring is that among these horrid conditions great men such as Ghandi were able to formulate non-violent protest and a calmness of inner turmoil. The tour explicitly portrays the barbarism of this prison yet remakes its image to also be used to show the triumph of human spirit through prison art and the anecdotes of prisoners that ad survived and continued to stand for what they believed in.
The tour ended in Constitutional Court, a symbol of South Africa’s future juxtaposed to the imposed inequality of the past. The inner chamber is specifically full of symbolism from the bricks used from the apartheid era courthouse, the equal standing of the judges and the windows that show the footpath and feet of the public outside. This expresses egalitarianism in every sense as the ruling judges have no claim higher than the public and are there to serve for the best interests of the people. Constitutional Hill holds onto the relics of a violently segregationist regime so that all South African’s may see how a new state has emerged for the betterment of the people.
On the day that Egypt faced a potential military coup to oust it’s democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi for failing to address the political discord in the country in the wake of it’s revolution, the Seeking Justice group travelled to Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, South Africa, to gain an overview of the Apartheid system of government that plagued South Africa for the better part of half a century. The two situations have little in common, but for learning of the elation of Egyptians claiming to have finally completed their revolution whilst we learnt about the successful revolution against Apartheid (which some South Africans argue in many respects in incomplete).
The day consisted of three main parts; the first, a two-part lecture on the history of Apartheid by Simon Adams gave students an overview of the course which South Africa has travelled since the first appearance of Dutch settler colonists in 1652 through to the fall of Apartheid after the elections in 1994 (national) and 1995 (local council). Having the history conveyed by someone who for a number of years was directly involved and actively participated in the struggle really helped to convey the nature of the system and the passion of its opponents in a way that would have been impossible from someone, academic or otherwise, who was not involved.
The second was a tour of the Women’s Gaol, Old Fort and Number Four. These places are of historical significance for two reasons. The first is that at different times, a number of well known and leading opponents of Apartheid were held here, including both Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Ghandi. The second is that it serves as a microcosm for the broader Apartheid infrastructure that existed in South Africa. Not only were white, black, coloured and Indian prisoners treated differently and held in separate holdings, but black and white employees of the different areas were also paid and treated differently.
The third aspect of the visit to Constitution Hill was a visit and tour of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. The highest court in South Africa, the Constitutional Court stands as the antithesis of the structures that surround it. Consisting of eleven justices, appointed for a fixed term by the president from a short-list compiled by an independent body, the court represents a cross- section of South African society, including female and gay judges of different social, cultural and linguistic divisions (although proceedings are carried out in English). These judges preside over a range of cases in such a way that ensures the transparency of the legal process, itself a symbolic differentiation from the period that came before it. Everything about the court, from the nature of the judges to the architecture of the building represent the hope of the new South Africa, and what better place to locate such hope than in the midst of something that is so representative of the past injustices that it is trying to rectify and never return to.
Overall, the intellectual overview of Apartheid, combined with the remains of the physical representations of the old system and the new representations; physical, theoretical and aspirational, combine for a powerful introduction to the dark chapter of South Africa’s history.
Constitution Hill is an important site in South Africa which is located at the site of the former Old Fort prison complex in the city of Johannesburg. Constitution Hill has now become a remarkable site for post-apartheid, and the Number Four prison is inside the constitution hill, which most people has passed through, from criminals to political prisoners and to some people that are basically caught up in apartheid’s unjust law. Great men like Albert Luthuli, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada has passed through the Old Fort prison. The prison portrays the injustice, brutality and the human inhumanity of South African‘s tumultuous past, the astonishing shift to democracy and also the process by which liberty is won.
The day was kicked off with the lecture of Simon Adam in the women prison in constitution hill. Simon summarized the history of South Africa and mainly on the apartheid era and his personal experience in South African during the apartheid.
My visit to constitutional hill and experience showed me the distinctive means that the South African transition has built anticipation for the future out of the soreness of their history. Entering the Number Four prison the first thing that caught my eyes and got me thinking was, how did the former prisoner managed the devastating and brutality situation in the number prison? was an inscribed on the roof of a passage to Number Four prison, a quote from Nelson Mandela which captured the essence of the tour: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” all through was the experiences of the former prisoner one which was the humiliating “Tauza” dance, which the warden made the prisoners to dance by stripping them naked, the abuse and the overcrowded condition in the dishonorable Number four prison for black men. The shower and the toilet was an eastern style toilet which was just eight in number, and was very close to the food area and there was no privacy in the toilet and shower. Furthermore, the food was nothing to write home about which was just a meatless porridge. The white prisoners and the colured were given better meals than the blacks. Sometime the black prisoners have to change their name in other to get the meals that were given to the cloured prisoners. The “deep dark hole” (Emakhulukhuthu) in the number four prison which is known as isolation cell, prisoner who disobey will be put in isolation cells for 30 days no more than one hour per day outside. The women who were held in the prison were displayed at the top of the stairs; a lot of these women formed the backbone of the struggle of liberation resisting the apartheid system by rejecting to carry passes.
Personally, going round the number four prison and seeing all that the former prison had experienced both the male and female helped to appreciate freedom. There is nothing as good as a person been free, it also broaden my view on what it really mean to be put at the underneath of the racial hierarchy. However going to Melrose arch also showed me that there are still inequalities and separation in South Africa till today, well the journey still continues.
When I first entered Constitutional Hill, once home to one of the most notorious jails, I found myself feeling somewhat unsettled. It was confronting learning what the jail once represented and the deplorable violations of human rights, the disregard for common morality and the degrading conditions forced upon coloured and black prisoners. However, I did find the spirit and integrity that some female political prisoners held rather admirable, especially when they were faced with a violent oppressive authority. With the increased resistance against Apartheid, the number of female political prisoners drastically increased as well. Thirteen of the female political prisoners were able to collectively exert their influence to improve the undignified and unhygienic conditions that many other female prisoners suffered under. The political prisoners advocated for adequate undergarments, sanitation pads and shoes for the rest of the female prisoners. The conviction and bravery held by the female political prisoners served as a symbol of hope and admiration, even in some of the inhumane conditions.
The second thing that struck me was the Constitutional Court of South Africa, which emanated a sense of hope and unity in the present and future. The Court serves as a tribute to the social, cultural and democratic progress South Africa was able to achieve since the end of Apartheid. The symbolism entrenched in the Constitutional Court inspired a sense of awe and meaning. The bricks of the old prison were used with the walls of the court itself, acknowledging that the hardship and injustices committed in the past will be the same bricks that are a part of a building that stands for dignity, equality and freedom. The twenty-seven rights of the human rights charter carved in to the front doors of the Court represented the importance and the value that is shared on a global scale.
The interior of the Constitutional Court had a very strong cultural and historical significance that is unique to South Africa. For example, the logo of the Constitutional Court was redesigned to picture a tree that is held up by people, symbolizing that a constitution that is upheld by its people will protect the people. One of the most defining features of the Constitutional Court was the reference to the indaba tree, where once tribal councils used to resolve their conflicts under. The layout and the symbolisms of different aspects of the courtroom embedded many of the same ideals of the Western justice system. The windows within the courtroom represented transparency and accountability, while the level that all the judges were seated at were leveled exactly with one another representing an equal voice. At certain levels the people sitting in the gallery could be seated at a higher level than the judges alluding to the collective power that individuals can have, even in a courtroom.
The site of Constitutional Hill carries an overwhelming sense of historical importance and with it the collective narrative of division, suffering and injustice to the valuable lessons learnt of equality, unity and freedom.
DAY 11: Kibuye
CLAIRE P. Arriving at Lake Kivu at the only ‘living’ memorial we were to see … Continue reading DAY 11: Kibuye
DAY 10: Kigali (CNLG)
EMMA F.M. Listening to Yvette’s story today, I started to doubt. Could reconciliation – as … Continue reading DAY 10: Kigali (CNLG)
DAY 9: Avega, Agahozo-Shalom
STEPH K. As part of understanding peace-building efforts in Rwanda, we visited two sites where … Continue reading DAY 9: Avega, Agahozo-Shalom
DAY 8: Murambi, Nyanza
NAVA S. Guilt paralysed me as Mama Lambert began to speak to us about the … Continue reading DAY 8: Murambi, Nyanza
DAY 7: Nyamata, Ntarama, Gisozi
SAMANTHA G. Purple bunting waves in the wind as I walk through the grounds of … Continue reading DAY 7: Nyamata, Ntarama, Gisozi
DAY 6: Kigali
SARAH L. Venturing to Rwanda to study the genocide, and the implications in transitioning to … Continue reading DAY 6: Kigali
DAY 5: Lilieslief
LENA Mv V. Is truth enough? On a sunny Sunday morning on the outskirts of … Continue reading DAY 5: Lilieslief
DAY 4: Soweto
MASERAME M. I cannot remember the last time I was in Alexandra Township. The one … Continue reading DAY 4: Soweto
DAY 3: Pretoria, Voortrekker Monument, Freedom Park
JESSIE B. The Voortrekker Monument is momentous in its role, both as a part of … Continue reading DAY 3: Pretoria, Voortrekker Monument, Freedom Park
DAY 2: Johannesburg, Apartheid Museum
SCARLETT T. Having a rather underwhelming amount of previous knowledge of South Africa’s political history, … Continue reading DAY 2: Johannesburg, Apartheid Museum