Before Constitutional Hill opened its doors as a museum in 2004, the precinct housed a collection of notorious prisons which included the Old Fort, a high-security prison built in the 1890s to house prisoners of war during the Anglo-Boer Wars (1899-1902), the Number Four prison block, a so-called “Native Prison”, and the Women’s Gaol. During the apartheid era the prison complex became a detention centre for political dissidents, striking mineworkers, those deemed “anti-establishment” and those who simply violated the inhuman pass laws of the time. Many ordinary and famous people were incarcerated here during its years as a prison including former president Nelson Mandela and passive resistance leader Mahatma Gandhi, who were both imprisoned for their pro-democracy activism.
Constitution Hill tells the fascinating, often tragic, story of the real South African history; a history in which injustices abounded on social, cultural and political levels. However, this is also a story of victory, as South Africa won back its freedom and now protects the rights and dignity of each citizen. The journey to this state of freedom is explored at Constitution Hill, and comes alive through the many tours and exhibitions on offer.
The Apartheid Museum is as interesting, and as good, as the guide books say it is. There is no better way to explain the city and the country’s history. And it is the ‘missing link’ to much of the Johannesburg experience.
Johannesburg is the urban epicentre of Gauteng, and has played a major role in the history and heritage of South Africa. It is the home of the Constitutional Court, which was built on the site of the Old Fort Prison Complex, Number Four. The court remains one of the city’s most significant historical landmarks. In addition, it showcases a fascinating architecture that sets it apart, making in an apt symbol of democracy. Number Four used to be the place that prisoners (whether political or otherwise) were kept, and was known for its macabre ambience, based on the often unfair convictions and sentences of these ones. Today, the beautiful Constitutional Court stands proudly on these grounds, signifying the freedom that South Africa eventually earned through much fighting, heartache, and the positive initiative of loyal freedom-fighters.
South Africans and international visitors alike are invited to visit the Constitutional Court and be a part of the fascinating history and the artwork that is not only aesthetically stunning but also speaks volumes about the struggle. The public gallery allows visitors to watch the 11 justices hard at work while the human rights library reveals some intriguing cases and political events. This is, in fact, the largest human rights library in the Southern Hemisphere.
When the court justices needed a permanent location for the new Constitutional Court in 1995, the Prison Complex, which had become rundown and neglected, offered exactly the right look and feel. It was centrally situated and boasted a rich cultural history. In fact, during the apartheid regime, 2 000 black South Africans were going through this complex on a daily basis, many times for fighting against the injustices and racial inequalities of the political system. These men included historical icons like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Robert Sobukwe and Albert Luthuli, who spent countless hours and cold nights in the squalid conditions of the Number Four prison cells. In 1983, the prison was shut down, but it remained standing as a painful reminder of the terrible past. However, this has now been transformed into a vibrant, attractive museum that is dedicated to celebrating the resilience of the human spirit and the return to a free and fair South Africa. The prisoners of Number Four were forced to endure painful and humiliating processes. They were deloused, made to do a humiliating dance known as the Tauza, beaten, abused, and held for extended periods of time in dirty, overcrowded cells while awaiting trial. Female prisoners were also often stripped of their clothes, humiliating them. Prisoners included insubordinate British soldiers who had fought with the Boers, mineworkers that were incarcerated for striking, defiance campaigners, those on trial for treason, and youngsters that had been caught up in the Soweto Uprising. However, they also included the men and women that were arrested on a daily basis for not adhering to the inhumane Pass Laws.
Those visiting Constitution Hill will see how the past pain and injustices can be used to build a nation of strength, optimism and hope. Constitution Hill has a public participation programme called We the People, which invites ex-prisoners and wardens of the prison back to participate in important research-based workshops. This is a lengthy initiative, but goes a long way in restoring dignity and debriefing these ones to some extent. These workshops use the images, voices, stories and sounds of prison life to expose the real-life experiences of individuals that were once part of it. These form the basis of many of the tours and exhibitions. Photographs, memories and other objects are shared to prove the strength of the human mind and body; their resilience against the misuse of power and the effects of abuse.
The exhibitions at Constitution Hill are participatory experiences that draw the viewer in and involve them in a personal way. There are even places to record your own memories and your feelings about the exhibitions to ensure that this is not only about the past, but also an important record of the present and future.
EXHIBITIONS AND TOURS
1) Number Four - explore the prison and get a glimpse into the unfair, often inhumane, treatment of people based on their colour and their political affiliation.
2) The Mandela Cell - this includes a short film about former president, Nelson Mandela’s time at the Old Fort, as well as of his return to Constitution Hill some four decades later, which is rather stirring. This is a touching testimony of a man’s ability to inspire change, and to influence an entire society.
3)The Women’s Jail - although this beautiful Victorian-style building is currently under renovation, the hoarding around it currently acts as an exhibition honouring the efforts and victories of some of the influential women that shaped the country’s future, despite pain and opposition of the worst kind.
We the People Wall - leave your message on this wall for other visitors to see. The wall extends for the entire length of Constitution Square, and other important contributors include Nelson Mandela.
4) We the People - this is a photographic exhibition that tells the story of the first We the People road trip that visited rural communities all over South Africa in 2003.
5) Objects from the Past - an exhibition that showcases prison objects and emblems that have been preserved as testimony to the system of incarceration in apartheid South Africa. The once infamously cruel prison site has now become a symbol of South Africa’s successful struggle for freedom and democracy.
The Awaiting Trial Block of the Old Fort made way for the modern Constitutional Court, which works to uphold the rights and dignity of all who live in South Africa. Bricks from the old building were used to build the modern Constitutional Court, which was designed to be an open, transparent and welcoming space. It is possible for anyone to visit the court, the highest in the country, and watch the judges at work. The Constitutional Court also houses an impressive permanent art collection which is well worth visiting.
In the old prison blocks visitors can learn more about South Africa’s difficult path towards freedom and democracy from the extensive permanent museum exhibitions that include personal testimonies from former prisoners and warders and installations. There are also a number of guided tours of the complex which give further insight into the the significance of this heritage landmark and a small cafe called The Hill is open for refreshments once you have finished exploring.
There are one-hour tours at R80 for adults and R40 for learners or two-hour full site tours (10am and 1pm) at R100 for adults and R65 for learners.
The tour schedule is:
Monday to Friday: 9am – 5pm (last tour at 4pm)
Wednesdays: Last tour departs at 1pm
Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays: 9am – 4pm
Closed on Good Friday, Christmas Day and New Year's Day.