Constitution Hill, overlooking the city of Johannesburg, is more than just the site of South Africa’s Constitutional Court – the highest court in the country on constitutional matters.
The multi-million rand Constitution Hill development was one of South Africa’s most ambitious public building projects following the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, and gave rise to some of the new South Africa’s most admired architecture.
A multi-purpose, multi-faceted heritage precinct in the heart of the city, Constitution Hill was built on the 100-acre site of a century-old prison complex where the leaders of every major South African liberation group – Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi among them – were once detained.
Nowhere is the story of South Africa’s turbulent past and its extraordinary transition to democracy told as it is at Constitution Hill, witness to a century of South African history.
Through guided tours and exhibitions that have been designed as interactive experiences, visitors can learn about the injustices of South Africa’s past while observing the process by which the country’s freedom was won and is now protected.
Tours take in the visitor decks of the Constitutional Court, where visitors can experience a real court case, as well as the court’s extraordinary collection of South African artworks, as well as three prison museums: Number Four, the Women’s Gaol and the Old Fort.
The Old Fort, built in 1893, is one of Johannesburg’s oldest buildings and was used as a fortress by Paul Kruger during the Anglo Boer War. Nelson Mandela was the only black prisoner to be held in this “whites only” prison.
A journey to the section of the Old Fort complex reserved for black men, Number Four, deepens one’s understanding of how the apartheid system made criminals of “non-whites”. Number Four was once home to prisoners such as Mahatma Ghandi, Robert Sobukwe and the students of the 1976 Soweto uprising.
The grace of the Victorian-style building housing the Women’s Gaol – where the likes of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Fatima Meer and many other political activists were held – belies the pain and suffering that occurred within its walls.
‘The Robben Island of Johannesburg’
The complex housing these prisons was the place where more representatives of South Africa’s diverse communities were jailed for fighting for freedom than anywhere else in the country.
For decades, thousands of prisoners streamed through the complex’s “delousing” chambers, were made to do the humiliating “Tauza” dance, were beaten and abused in the notorious Number Four prison for black men, were held for months in dirty, overcrowded conditions in the Awaiting Trial Block, were stripped of their underclothes and their dignity in the Women’s Gaol.
The complex saw it all: from rebellious British soldiers who fought with the Boers at the turn of the century to striking mineworkers, Defiance Campaigners, Treason Trialists, and youths caught up in the Soweto Uprisings.
Both the famous and the infamous were incarcerated here: war rebels, political activists, notorious gangsters and criminals. Activists were usually held as awaiting trial prisoners and then sent off to Robben Island or Pretoria to serve jail terms.
Most of those imprisoned at the complex, however, were ordinary people arrested in their droves every day under the apartheid government’s Pass Laws restricting the movement of black people.
Brewing beer – an illegal activity if you were black – also landed many women in jail. Still others were arrested for having sex across the colour bar or for homosexual sex.
And black men lived in dread of Number Four, with its chilling Ekhulukhuthu (the deep hole) isolation cells.
‘Gandhi: prisoner of conscience’
Besides the regular temporary exhibitions at Constitution Hill, two permanent exhibitions focus on the lives of two of the great 20th century fighters for the rights of the oppressed, both of whom spent time within the Old Fort.
The exhibition “Gandhi: prisoner of conscience” focuses on the years Mahatma Gandhi spent in Johannesburg, from 1902 until 1914, when he left South Africa at the age of 46. It was during this time that Gandhi formulated and refined his Satyagraha or passive resistance philosophy, and 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.”
Nelson Mandela’s prison cell
Housed in the cell where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner, the other permanent exhibition documents the time that Mandela spent at Robben Island as well as at the Old Fort.
Mandela spent two weeks in the Awaiting Trial Block, 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 Number Four, where the other black male prisoners were kept.
Here, in his meticulously reconstructed cell, the various pictures and objects on display include a stack of wooden boxes that form but a small sample of the 76 boxes used to hold the 70 000-plus pieces of correspondence between Mandela and the prison authorities over the 27-and-a-half years of his imprisonment.
He frequently wrote letters on behalf of his fellow inmates protesting against regulations disallowing books for study or complaining about the quality of the food. One letter of complaint runs to 25 pages. Some of the letters were written in Afrikaans, the mother tongue of the prison bosses.
Two videos run constantly as part of the exhibition. 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.
The second, 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.
For full visitor information, as well as information about special programmes, exhibitions and venue hire, visit www.constitutionhill.org.za.