Overview | Profile | Projects | Exhibitions

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:

Constitutional Court

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.

Read more about the Constitutional Court

Heritage facilities

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.

Read more about the Old Fort
Read more about the Awaiting Trial Block
Read more about Section Four and Five
Read more about the Women's Jail

The Old Fort

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.

The Awaiting Trial Block

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.

Woman's Jail

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.

Section Four and Section Five – No 4

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.

Governor’s House

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.