Constitution Hill is a window on a brutal past

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“The Hill, as it is fondly known, is an engine of growth and transformation for downtown Johannesburg and a place where residents and visitors can interact in a space that takes the country’s history forward in a respectful but progressive manner,” explains Petal Thring, the chief executive officer of Constitution Hill. (Image: www.mediaclubsouthafrica.com)

 
Melissa Jane Cook


• Petal Thring
CEO
Constitution Hill
+27 11 381 3100
info@constitutionhill.org.za

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Constitution Hill is home to the Constitutional Court, the foundation of all that is democratic in South Africa. It is a reminder to all who visit that dignity, democracy, freedom and equality are entrenched in the Constitution.

For decades, South Africa was an international pariah, notorious for its apartheid policies. Today, Constitution Hill, in Braamfontein has undergone a phenomenal transformation, a microcosm of the changes the country as a whole has undergone. Once a place of inhumanity and brutality, it is now a place of justice and learning. A commanding presence, Constitution Hill overlooks Johannesburg and provides a unique perspective on the City of Gold and its rich history. This site is home to the Constitutional Court, Women’s Gaol museum, Number Four museum, and the Old Fort museum.

“The Hill, as it is fondly known, is an engine of growth and transformation for downtown Johannesburg and a place where residents and visitors can interact in a space that takes the country’s history forward in a respectful but progressive manner,” explains Petal Thring, the chief executive officer of Constitution Hill.

A living museum

It is a living legacy of a very complex, tumultuous past going back to 1892, when the Old Fort was built by the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (ZAR), under president Paul Kruger. It was built as a prison, but for a brief period during the South African War, or Anglo Boer War, of 1899 to 1902, it served as a military defence post.

In the late 1800s and early 20th century, new buildings were added to the fort-like prison. These included the Natives’ Section and isolation cells known as sections Four and Five, where black male prisoners were held, a Women’s Goal in 1907, and an Awaiting Trial building in the 1920s.

Collectively, these buildings were known as the Fort, infamous for its brutal treatment of prisoners. Common criminals and ordinary men and women who had contravened colonial and apartheid legislation were imprisoned here in abhorrent conditions.

Old Fort

Before it took on its role as apartheid prison, the Old Fort was used to defend the ZAR capital, Pretoria. Kruger’s soldiers walked its ramparts in the war, until the British marched into town in 1900, and took over the structure.

The ramparts were built to protect the ZAR from British invasion, as well as intimidate migrant miners and keep an eye on them as they crowded into the village in search of gold. Reverting to a prison after the war, initially only white male prisoners were held here, except for Nelson Mandela, who, before the Rivonia Trial in 1962, was given a bed in the hospital section.

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It is a living legacy of a very complex, tumultuous past going back to 1892, when the Old Fort was built by the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (ZAR), under president Paul Kruger. It was built as a prison, but for a brief period during the South African War, or Anglo Boer War, of 1899 to 1902, it served as a military defence post. (Image: www.constitutionhill.org.za)

Women’s Jail

The Women’s Jail was a charming, Victorian brick building. A space of such grace, yet it humiliated and brutalised its female prisoners, which included criminals and murderers, as well as anti-apartheid activists. The infamous murderess Daisy de Melker was held here, as were prominent political stalwarts such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and Fatima Meer. The women were particularly vulnerable. An information board in the museum today quotes political activist Barbara Hogan: “I could hear a doctor screaming at her saying, ‘You say your baby is sick, but if you cared about your baby, you would carry a pass.'”

Number Four

The sign above the entrance to the Natives’ section, Number Four, is a quote from Mandela: “It is said that no one really knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.”

Built to house 997 prisoners, it housed 2 200. Here, thousands of black men were imprisoned and brutalised; yet many survived and defied their jailors. Walking down a dark corridor on to a concrete courtyard on a drizzly, gloomy day gave a minute glimmer into what the prisoners must have felt when they arrived at the frightening Number Four. For many, this was their last journey. During the apartheid era, police would arrive numerous times a day with prisoners, who were given a prisoner number; this number was how they were identified.

Detainees were strip-searched and hosed down, in summer or winter, and forced to perform the dehumanising “tausa”. This was a diabolical movement that allowed the prison warders to check whether the inmates were smuggling any weapons or contraband up their rectums. Political prisoner Indres Naidoo describes it: “When performing ‘tausa’ the naked person would leap in the air, spinning around and opening the legs wide while clapping his hands overhead and then in the same moment coming down, making clicking sounds with the mouth and bending his body forward so as to expose his open rectum to the warders’ inspection.”

Bob Gosani, a photojournalist, secretly managed to photograph the “tausa” from the top floor of a nurses’ home overlooking the prison.

Living conditions at Number Four were excruciating and barbaric. In the food area, where prisoners collected their food from trolleys before moving off to eat in the yard or cells, today food drums display the ghastly prisoners’ menus. African National Congress stalwart Joe Slovo describes the drums in his unfinished autobiography: “The first drum, marked ‘Congress One’, contained cooked chunks of beef or pork for white accused. The ‘Congress Two’ drum, for coloureds and Indian prisoners, contained either porridge or boiled vegetables on top of which floated a few pieces of fatty meat that were most probably from the discarded cut-offs from ‘Congress One’ drum. The ‘Congress Three’ drum (for black prisoners) was always meatless and the contents alternated between a plastic-textured porridge and a mixture of boiled mealies and beans.”

There were only eight, eastern style toilets that offered no privacy and were in close proximity to the food area. Writer and political prisoner Alex La Guma wrote: “One of the reasons for my disease [typhoid] is found in this jail. Filth. The mats are filthy, the blankets are filthy, the latrines are filthy, the food is filthy, the utensils are filthy, and the convicts’ clothes are filthy. The latrines overflow and make a stench.”

Showers were allowed once a week, but prisoners were often denied a wash for months. The allocated shower time was 30 minutes for the 2 000 prisoners, and the gang members took most of this time. The inmates would then be forced to use the toilet to wash their faces, or would rub soap on themselves and wait for it to rain.

The communal cells housed between 60 and 70 prisoners; they were only built for 30 and as a result were overcrowded, dirty and badly ventilated. They were lit by a small window, but ironically, as authorities tried to break the spirit of the prisoners, these communal cells became an area to build courage and discuss resistance. The inmates gave each other strength and sang resistance songs to entertain, comfort and maintain solidarity.

As if life inside was not harsh enough, made worse by the hostility of the prison wardens, there was also a hierarchy in the cells. You slept according to status: the gang leaders in the place of most comfort. The bod guards protected them and then the bush, or slaves, were near the toilet. It was a stinking space, where the slaves, the lowest in the cell food chain, were abused. These unsanitary conditions created perfect conditions for diseases, including typhoid and enteric fever.

Emakhulukhuthu, an isiZulu word meaning the “deep dark hole”, was reserved for the harshest punishments. These were the isolation cells, where “lunatics, juveniles and those with infectious diseases” were kept. Prisoners here spent 23 hours a day inside, subsisting on a diet of rice water. “They could officially be held here for 30 days but some spent over a year in these cells,” states one of the information boards.

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Emakhulukhuthu, an isiZulu word meaning the “deep dark hole”, was reserved for the harshest punishments. These were the isolation cells, where “lunatics, juveniles and those with infectious diseases” were kept. (Image: www.constitutionhill.org.za)

 

To pass the time, the inmates were creative and did blanket sculpting. At the end of each week, the prisoner with the most artistic blanket sculpture won a reward. “The conditions here were so depraved that when the prisoners were moved to Diepsloot Prison, known as Sun City, they said it was like moving to a hotel, and was utterly luxurious compared to the horrific conditions they had to previously endure,” said Thring.

Number Four is now a stark museum and memorial to the thousands of men who were confined within its walls, deprived of the most rudimentary of human rights. Photographic, audio and video material captures the rich heritage of the site. Artefacts of prison life are also on display, including recreations of the blanket and soap sculptures. It remains as it was when it was closed in 1983.

Jailed for fighting for freedom

Mahatma Gandhi was the first to apply the concept of non-violent civil disobedience in South Africa, against the racial segregation laws of the time. The exhibition in the Old Fort, “Gandhi: prisoner of conscience”, focuses on the years Gandhi spent in Johannesburg, from 1902 until 1914, when he left South Africa at the age of 46.

Of his experiences in South Africa, he said: “Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now. My love for South Africa and my concern for her problems are no less than for India.” Mandela is quoted on the walls of the exhibition: “The spirit of Gandhi may well be a key to human survival in the 21st century.”

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Mahatma Gandhi was the first to apply the concept of non-violent civil disobedience in South Africa, against the racial segregation laws of the time. The exhibition in the Old Fort, “Gandhi: prisoner of conscience”, focuses on the years Gandhi spent in Johannesburg, from 1902 until 1914, when he left South Africa at the age of 46. (Image: www.constitutionhill.org.za)

 

Constitution Hill has witnessed it all: South Africa’s history of injustice, detention and imprisonment, as well as democracy at work. People who passed through the complex include Gandhi, Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Ahmed Kathrada, Treason trialists of the late 1950s, and students and schoolchildren from the 1976 Soweto uprising, as well as thousands of others active in the apartheid struggle, alongside common criminals.

This multipurpose complex functions as a national symbol of a new South Africa and a public space where South Africans, and others, can debate and define the democratic order and this new world.