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.
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.
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