Mandela and Gandhi on the Hill

26 February 2009

Two permanent exhibitions at Constitution Hill focus on the lives of two of the greatest souls in the world – Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi – both of whom called Johannesburg home.

Spend an hour at the Nelson Mandela exhibition in the Old Fort, and come away with a small peep into the icon’s soul.

Having this exhibition at the Old Fort on Constitution Hill, Johannesburg is significant. Mandela spent two weeks in the Awaiting Trial Block on the hill, now demolished, in December 1956, before being transferred to Pretoria, for the remainder of the lengthy Treason Trial.

And in August 1962, he spent a few weeks in the Old Fort hospital. He wasn’t ill, but he was kept there because of his status, and possibly because it was believed that he could more easily escape from No 4 jail on the hill, where all black male prisoners were kept.

In October 1962, he was sentenced to five years on Robben Island for inciting workers to strike, and for leaving the country without a passport. He had been on the run for 17 months as the Black Pimpernel, and had been arrested earlier in 1962 near Howick in KwaZulu-Natal. In 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island in the Rivonia Trial. He was released in February 1990.

“While the hospital was indeed comfortable – I was able to sleep in a proper bed, something I had never done before in prison – the real reason for his [Colonel Minnaar] generosity was that the hospital was the safest place to keep me,” recounts Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom.

But Mandela dispelled all speculation about a possible escape. “To reach it one had to pass through two impregnable walls, each with armed guards; and once inside, four massive gates had to be unlocked before one even reached the area where I was kept,” he writes. “There was speculation in the press that the movement was going to attempt to rescue me, and the authorities were doing their utmost to prevent it.”

The hospital and letters

The room in the Old Fort that was used as the hospital is about the size of two small garages alongside one another. It has tall ceilings – almost four metres high – and a row of covered windows along its southern wall. Its wooden floor is well worn; its grey, patchy walls have not been painted for many years.

Pictures of Mandela’s cell on Robben Island are displayed, showing a neat and orderly space, with bookshelves, a desk and a bed. The famous National Geographic photograph of the naked, smiling Andamanese woman is on display at the exhibition. It had been framed for him by his fellow inmates, in particular Mac Maharaj, using carefully cut pieces of cardboard as a makeshift frame. On his release, National Geographic sent Mandela a copy of the original photograph.

A stack of wooden boxes is a small sample of the 76 boxes that were used to hold the 76 000 pieces of correspondence between Mandela and the prison authorities. He frequently wrote letters on behalf of his fellow inmates protesting against the petty regulations of disallowing books to study, or complained about the quality of the food. One letter of complaint runs to 25 pages. Some of the letters were written in Afrikaans, an effort to appeal to the prison bosses whose mother tongue was Afrikaans.

Large folio books meticulously record every letter written by and sent to Mandela. One of his letters, dated October 1989, just a few months before he was released, is displayed. It is written to his grandchild, and he signed it: “A million kisses and tons and tons of love, Grandpa.” In a postscript he says he should have used “Darling” in the salutation instead of “Dear”, saying he only thought of this when he was signing off the letter.

Two videos

Two videos run constantly. The first one, filmed in April 1977, some 13 years into Mandela’s life sentence on Robben Island, records an official visit in which the prison authorities invited the foreign press to visit the island, to see for themselves the conditions under which the prisoners were being held. It records several prisoners with spades, clearing weeds from a gravel path.

At first Mandela is not visible – he was apparently hiding behind a bush – but then the camera zooms in on him. He stands impassively, his lips tight and unsmiling, staring ahead, bursting with anger.

As soon as the visitors left, the long trousers were exchanged for short ones, and the men were given hammers again, to sit and crush rocks mindlessly.

Mandela is wearing long khaki trousers and a shirt, with a small hat on his head. The issue of long versus short trousers was a cause of conflict between prisoners and prison authorities. Mature men like Mandela and others were at first given short trousers to wear, in an effort to humiliate them. Mandela fought this ruling vehemently and eventually won.

The other video, from December 2003, shows Mandela arriving at the newly built Constitutional Court, built below the Old Fort, and being welcomed by the then chief justice of the court, Arthur Chaskalson. He is asked to sign a copy of the Bill of Rights, and is told about the signing of the three words, “Freedom, dignity and equality”, by the judges in concrete above the court door. He is given a gift of a brick from the demolished Awaiting Trial Block, where he spent time.

Gandhi exhibition

Constitution Hill has another permanent exhibition visitors can take in. The exhibition, entitled “Gandhi: prisoner of conscience”, opened in October 2006, off the courtyard of No 4 prison, in the former visitors’ centre.

Gandhi formulated and refined his Satyagraha or passive resistance philosophy while living and working in Joburg.

The exhibition focuses on the years he spent in Johannesburg, from 1902 until 1914, when he left South Africa at the age of 46. During this time, he was transformed from a shy lawyer into an extraordinary leader of international stature.

The exhibition details the experiences that shaped his development by means of photographs, quotes, artefacts and audio material. Gandhi’s transformation is symbolised in the changes in his attire – from a besuited lawyer to rough prison garb to a simple cotton tunic on his departure for India in 1914.

Gandhi said of his experiences in South Africa: “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 as saying: “The spirit of Gandhi may well be a key to human survival in the 21st century.”

Two great 20th century fighters for the rights of the oppressed – a good reason to visit Constitution Hill.

Source: City of Johannesburg