The colourful foyer of the court, with slanted mosaic columns and wire chandeliers.
(Images: Lucille Davie)
• Petal Thring
CEO, Constitution Hill
+27 11 381 3139.
Lorraine Kearney and Rudo Mungoshi
Spread across Braamfontein Ridge, looking north over the upmarket suburbs of the city of gold, with the bustling, teeming, noisy inner city behind it, lies Constitution Hill. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Magaliesberg.
It centres Johannesburg in it past, present and future. Constitution Hill is the apex, the leading symbol of how far the country has come in such a short space of time. As the tour guides will tell you, the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, was built on the site out of the bricks of the old jail as a way of saying to the world: “Never again will these bricks bring oppression; never again will we lose our freedom.”
The Hill, or ConHill, as it is variously fondly known, has won plenty of awards and recognition over the past decade. It is an on-going restoration and heritage project, and for its latest award, it shrugged off tough competition to clinch Preferred Heritage Destination of the Year in the Golden Shield Awards of the National Heritage Council. The awards were made at a ceremony in Bloemfontein on 20 September.
Petal Thring, ConHill’s chief executive officer, said the complex was humbled by the recognition and would work hard to continue promoting the site. Nomination “signifies achievement in the efforts of staff and all involved to make this heritage site the true shining gem that it is”, she said. “This is proof that heritage sites are still relevant as custodians of our history and play a vital role in nation-building, more so as we move towards celebrating 20 years of democracy.”
The Preferred Heritage Destination award was introduced for the first time this year. The Golden Shield National Heritage Awards, in their second year, are an annual council project, held to recognise all those who have contributed to the preservation, protection and promotion of South Africa’s heritage. Individuals, non-governmental organisations and municipalities were also recognised for their efforts. The other awards were: National Living Treasure, Local Government Commitment, Young Heritage Activist of the Year, Heritage Ambassador, Academic Excellence, Favourite World Heritage Site and Outstanding Community Project.
Constitution Hill is on the site of the Old Fort, built by Paul Kruger, the president of the Zuid-Afrikaanse Republiek in 1892. It was built on the strategic hill, overlooking Johannesburg to keep control over the uitlanders (foreigners) in the mining village below.
It did not do much service as a fort, however, and was mainly used as a high-security prison, except for the brief period of the Anglo Boer War or South African War, when it was a military defence post. After the war ended, in 1902, the public works department authorised the Fort’s temporary use as a prison pending the erection of a new jail. The Johannesburg city council of the time was opposed to a prison in the middle of a growing residential area, but this temporary arrangement was to stay in place for the next 80 years.
New buildings were added in the late 1900s and early 20th century: the Natives’ Section and isolation cells known as Sections Four and Five, where black male prisoners were held, a Women’s Prison in 1907, and an Awaiting Trial building in the 1920s.
Throughout the last century it was notorious for its harsh treatment of prisoners, who ranged from common criminals to hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women who contravened colonial and apartheid legislation such as hut tax laws, beer brewing laws, pass laws and the Group Areas Act. Many political prisoners were also incarcerated at the Fort, including those imprisoned after various waves of resistance, such as Sharpeville in 1961, the 1976 uprising and the harsh clampdowns of the mid-1980s states of emergency.
Among those held within its walls were Mahatma Gandhi in 1908; striking white mineworkers in 1913 and 1922; members of the Ossewa Brandwag in the 1940s and the Defiance Campaign just over a decade later; and later Treason Trialists. Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Joe Slovo, ZK Mathews, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Helen Joseph, Moses Kotane, Lillian Ngoyi and Ruth First were all imprisoned in the Old Fort, the Awaiting Trial Block and the Women’s Jail.
The Old Fort was declared a National Monument in 1964 although it continued as a functioning prison until 1987, after which the buildings and the site as a whole suffered from neglect and vandalism. A few years previously, on 31 January 1983, nearly one hundred years after the Old Fort was built, all prisoners were transferred to the new Diepkloof Prison, known as Sun City, outside Soweto.
But it was injected with a new meaning and energy when it was chosen in the mid-1990s for the new Constitutional Court. The court moved into its home in February 2004, and Thabo Mbeki, the president at the time, inaugurated it on Human Rights Day, 21 March 2004. Constitution Hill opened to the public the next day. The restoration of the Women’s Gaol, Old Fort and Number Four Museums were completed by the end of 2007.
Today, it is home to the Women’s Gaol museum, Number Four museum, and Old Fort museum. They host various exhibitions, functions and educational programmes that showcase South Africa’s rich heritage and advocate human rights. Tours of the site are also encouraged.