Enshrining the rights of all citizens and central to the transition to democracy in South Africa is its Constitution. Guarded by the Constitutional Court, our Constitution is recognised as one of the most progressive, advancing human rights and promoting reconciliation.
The Constitutional Court has its home on a historic ridge in Hillbrow; it was once the place of incarceration for thousands of apartheid petty offenders, both men and women, and it was here that the world’s major icons of liberation and human rights – Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela – were held.
Before it took on its role as apartheid prison, it was the Old Fort, built by President Paul Kruger to defend his capital, Pretoria. His soldiers walked its ramparts in the Anglo Boer War of 1899 to 1902, until the British marched into town in 1900, and quietly took over the Old Fort.
Now the heritage site is a major tourist attraction situated between the high-density residential neighbourhood of Hillbrow to its east and the commercial and residential node of Braamfontein to its west. Constitution Hill has become an integrated, multipurpose and multidimensional space.
The site houses three notorious prisons: the Old Fort, dating back to 1893, where white inmates were kept; sections Four and Five, now known as Number Four, or No 4, the so-called “Natives’ Gaol” built in 1904; and the Women’s Gaol, or Women’s Jail, built in 1910.
No 4 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. It remains as it was when it was closed in 1983. It houses a permanent exhibition showcasing the life of Mahatma Gandhi.
The Women’s Jail is partly a museum and partly an exhibition and functions space, respectful of the horrible conditions under which many women, including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Fatima Meer, lived while incarcerated within its walls.
A new building, constructed north of the Women’s Jail, houses the Commission on Gender Equality; the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Commission; Behind the Mask; the Forum for Empowerment of Women; and the Office of the Public Protector.
The Old Fort has remained, its oppressive solitary confinement cells the focal point of the former jail. It is now a museum, with a permanent exhibition on Nelson Mandela, but also a place of renewal, where exhibitions, functions and conferences are held.
The Constitutional Court, opened in 2004, was built alongside Number Four, having taken the space left by the demolished Awaiting-Trial Block. And so, the old and the new combine to acknowledge the past but move into the future, in a way that is sensitive to the past but progressive in its task of defending the country’s Constitution.
Constitution Hill celebrates South Africa’s ability to talk itself out of a bloody racial conflict and into democracy. It is a “lekgotla” – a place of gathering – where South Africans and international visitors alike come together for stimulating dialogue and debate. The precinct is also the home of one of South Africa’s major public art collections, that of the Constitutional Court; a good deal of it is on display on the walls of the court building.
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.
Some R460-million has been spent on this development.
Constitution Hill is the multi-million-rand urban regeneration development project, funded by Blue IQ, the Gauteng Provincial Government, the City of Johannesburg, the Department of Justice and philanthropic organisations, and delivered by the Johannesburg Development Agency.
Constitution Hill is the new home of the Constitutional Court, the protector of our basic rights and freedoms. Constitution Hill is also the site of Johannesburg’s notorious Old Fort Prison Complex, commonly known as Number Four, where thousands of ordinary people were brutally punished before the dawn of democracy in 1994. Many of South Africa’s leading political activists, including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, were detained here.
- Constitution Hill Infrastructure Sub-Project, May 2003 [pdf]
- HET Feasibility Study Report, November 2002 [pdf]
The selection of the 95 000m2 site as the location for the national Constitutional Court, has created a number of opportunities to establish a viable and sustainable precinct that all contribute to the revitalisation of the site and the Johannesburg city centre.
The project aims to:
- Develop the precinct around the concentration of the Constitutional Court, constitutional commissions and other related niche and supportive functions;
- Develop the precinct heritage resources through a programme that promotes heritage, tourism and education;
- Integrate the area into the property system of the Johannesburg city centre and increase property values in the precinct and in the surrounding areas of Braamfontein, Hillbrow and Parktown; and
- Create a dynamic, vibrant and sustainable precinct through the creation of distinctive destinations with legal, research and office facilities.
Constitution Hill comprises:
- The Constitutional Court;
- Accommodation for the constitutional commissions;
- Some 1 724 super-basement parking bays, bus and taxi holding and drop-off facilities;
- Upgraded peripheral roads and internal streets;
- A visitors’ information and exhibition centre;
- New museums and related heritage and tourism activities;
- A restaurant; and
- Public open spaces.
Key development blocks
The western portion of the site comprises four development blocks sited above the parking super-basement and, in turn, sub-divisible into smaller development land parcels. These are paramount in creating a critical mass that will sustain the development of Constitution Hill.
Each development block is subject to architectural coding and earmarked for a range of uses:
Development Block A will accommodate a publicly accessible information centre and shared facilities complex that includes conference facilities, an auditorium, training facilities, a library, meeting rooms and information desk for key tenants. Total bulk rentable floor space is approximately 5 000m2.
Development Block B will accommodate a 75-room hotel, 5 600m2 of office space and approximately 1 300m2 for retail purposes.
Development Block C will allow for 11 800m2 of office space and approximately 100m2 of retail facilities.
Development Block D will accommodate 12 500m2 of office space. And about 145 residential units will be created on the site by means of conversions to the existing Queen Victoria Hospital and Nurses’ Home, as well as new unit construction on the upper levels of each of the development blocks.
Not only home to the Constitutional Court and other statutory bodies, The Hill is also a thriving complex of heritage sites and museums, exhibition and performance spaces, offices, restaurants and other tourist facilities. It also boasts one of South Africa’s major public art collections.
It aims to celebrate South Africa’s ability to talk itself out of bloody racial conflict and into democracy. It is an engine of growth and transformation for downtown Johannesburg, and a place where visitors can feel – safely – the beat of this vibrant but often inaccessible city.
Constitution Hill comprises:
The development of the new national Constitutional Court is the primary architectural and symbolic focus of Constitution Hill.
The court and its associated facilities occupy 8 178m2 over three storeys. This development involved the construction of:
- The court chambers, interpreters’ booths and foyers;
- The judges’ chambers and private garden;
- Constitution Square and the Great African Steps;
- The administration offices; and
- The constitutional law library, the largest in the southern hemisphere.
The heritage buildings on the site provide another key focus for the development. These buildings have been carefully repaired, restored and renovated and are now used as museum and exhibition spaces.
The Old Fort now accommodates a variety of distinct functions:
- Some 5 500m2 has been allocated to exhibition and museum space;
- Section Four and Section Five (the “Native Prison”, now known as No 4), have become a museum space and place of reflection and contemplation;
- The Women’s Jail has become a museum space;
- The Governor’s House, outside the Old Fort, now accommodates improved community facilities; and
- The Old Fort and its ramparts provide a powerful vantage point over Johannesburg.
At the centre of Constitution Hill is the Old Fort, surrounded by its ramparts. Its location provided a vantage point over the bustling mining town. Originally built in the late 19th century by the Boer president Paul Kruger, it symbolised defiance against the might of imperial Britain and a way to keep watch over the uitlanders (foreigners), who were suspected of plotting to overthrow the Boers.
In 1900, during the Anglo Boer War, the British seized Johannesburg and imprisoned Boer soldiers in the fort. A group of Cape Afrikaners was executed there, marking the beginning of the long history of the fort as a place of punishment, confinement and abuse. Once the war was over, in 1902, it reverted to being a prison, and it was Johannesburg’s main place of incarceration for eight decades.
Many opponents of the government of the day were imprisoned here. These included Mahatma Gandhi, the anti-British Boer rebels during World War I, the 1922 white miner insurrectionists, Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, the Treason Trialists of the late 1950s and the children who threw stones in the 1976 Soweto Uprising. But most of these prisoners were held at the fort temporarily before they were transferred elsewhere.
Those who stayed were common criminals – murderers, rapists and burglars – as well as tens of thousands of ordinary people whose only crime was that they were in contravention of the state’s race laws, such as the immorality laws, which forbade sex across the colour bar as well as sex between men.
The Old Fort was declared a national monument in 1964, although it continued to function as a prison until 1983. After this, the buildings and the site as a whole suffered from neglect and vandalism. It now forms a central part of the Constitution Hill development.
The ramparts are a vantage point over Constitution Hill – and also over the city. They represent a bridge between the difficulties of the past – as represented by the derelict old prison buildings – and the possibilities of the future – as represented by the construction of the Constitutional Court.
To make way for the Constitutional Court and Constitution Square, a large prison building dating from 1928, the Awaiting Trial Block, was demolished brick by brick. These bricks have been laid on Constitution Square to denote the footprint of the original building. The remaining bricks have been used in the interior walls of the court building.
The court and square have been built around the commemoration of this prison. Four stairwells of the Awaiting Trial Block have been retained and are used as freestanding landmarks. A metal and glass superstructure above the stairwells creates the Towers of Justice.
All prisoners went through the Awaiting Trial Block: male and female, black and white, political and common. For two weeks, the 156 Treason Trialists of 1956 – led by Nelson Mandela – were held in the block. Scores of activists were held for three months during the 1960 State of Emergency, and hundreds of teenagers were held here after the Soweto Uprising of 1976.
All of these groups were held in special communal cells. Ironically, this allowed political prisoners to meet and talk in ways they could not do on the outside because of banning orders.
There was also a visitors’ room connected to the Awaiting Trial Block, which was one of the only places of comfort for prisoners.
In 1910, a new women’s jail was built directly west of the Old Fort, the handsome red brick building we see today. The jail held both black and white women, but in separate sections.
The ghost of Daisy de Melker is said to haunt it: De Melker was found guilty of poisoning her son and two husbands, and was executed in 1932. Prominent activists were also held here. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was detained for several months following the 1976 Soweto Uprising. She was so shocked that common prisoners were not allowed to wear underwear or stockings that she held a successful protest on their behalf.
However, the vast majority of inmates were neither murderers nor freedom fighters. They were ordinary women arrested mainly for pass offences or for making an independent income from beer brewing – this was illegal because the state controlled the sale of liquor to black people through its beer halls.
At times, they had small children or babies with them. This was especially true during the late 1950s, when black women were arrested in large numbers as they deliberately presented themselves to the police without passes.
The majority of South Africans know the whole prison complex simply as Number Four, a term that symbolised courage and fear, the cruelties and indignities of colonialism and apartheid, and of the prison system in general.
From the very beginning of the fort’s history as a prison, white inmates were kept within the fort while black inmates were kept outside its ramparts. In 1904, sections Four and Five were built, specifically to house black, male prisoners. No 4 can be seen to the north of the ramparts and to the west of the Constitutional Court.
It contained the general cells for black male prisoners where violent criminals, pass-offenders and political prisoners were incarcerated side by side. At the extreme north are 24 punishment cells used to hold men who had committed an offence inside the prison, such as trying to escape. These cells also held men with infectious diseases such as smallpox as well as juveniles and men with mental illnesses.
The steel doors of the punishment cells are covered in graffiti, an evocative record of the lives, fears and aspirations of the thousands of men who were held there over the decades.
No 4 forms a vital heritage component of Constitution Hill and has been left largely intact. It is a museum space and place of reflection and contemplation. As the dark heart of the precinct, it gives visitors a profoundly moving sense of what prison life was like.
On the western edge of Hillbrow is the Governor’s House, a pristine heritage building that was renovated after it was gutted by fire some years ago. Restoration of the Governor’s House started in October 2007 with a detailed report on the condition of the house, as well as an indication of the extent of the restoration. The fire destroyed the entire wooden floor, the wooden ceiling and the wooden latticework on the veranda.
The restoration was completed in 2009 at a cost of R1,695-million. The floor has been replaced with Oregon pine obtained from demolished old houses, while the latticework has been replaced with steel, for easy maintenance. The wood slated ceiling has also been replaced, to resemble how it would have looked originally.
The wooden windows were replaced with steel windows some time back, while some of the newer window spaces have been bricked up. The original window spaces were revealed when the plaster was chipped away. Wooden windows have replaced the steel windows.
Every room in the house – three lounges, a dining room and five bedrooms – had a fireplace but only one fireplace has been restored as a reminder of what it looked like. The interior walls have been re-plastered and painted white, while the exterior walls are a rich terracotta and a restful shade of grey, perfectly complemented by a red corrugated iron roof.
Several outside rooms have been restored. The Recreation Centre, originally the officers’ mess or club, just north of the house, has also been restored.
The City’s department of community development has taken over the house and the recreation centre. The house and facilities are now used for taking in street kids, and offering them and the immediate community workshop rooms, and life and computer skills courses.
Nelson Mandela exhibition
A permanent exhibition on Nelson Mandela is housed in the former hospital of the Old Fort. It consists of showcases with some of the many letters he wrote from Robben Island, photographs, and other artefacts of the famous prisoner. Two videos run continuously, one showing him on the island, working with a spade, the other shows him visiting the Constitutional Court in 2003.
Mahatma Gandhi exhibition
This exhibition, housed in the former visitors’ centre of Number 4 prison, focuses on the years Mahatma Gandhi spent in Johannesburg, from 1902 until 1914, when he left South Africa at the age of 46. Photographs and documents give an insight into the man behind Satyagraha, or the theory of passive resistance.
The Old Fort ramparts provide a unique vantage point over the site of Constitution Hill, Hillbrow and the city. The ramparts are paved, a bridge has been constructed in the gap in the northwest corner, and a staircase has been created on the northern ramparts, with a facility for the disabled. Visitors can also walk in the tunnels under the ramparts.
Three Women: Women’s Jail
Daisy de Melker, Nomathemba Funani, Jrannie Noel – a murderer, an ordinary woman spurred to become a pass resister, a political activist from Durban; this is an installation in silk, sound and photographs that tells the stories of three very different women who spent time at the Women’s Jail, in 1932, 1956, and 1976 and whose ghosts and memories still occupy its cells and corridors.
Memory Room and Documentation Room: Women’s Jail
In the Memory Room visitors are invited to listen to recordings of former prisoners’ memories and to record their own memories of and responses to Constitution Hill. Adjoining the Memory Room is a Documentation Room, out of which the Constitution Hill Archive will develop.