Constitution Hill is one of the most historic places in Johannesburg. It’s ten minutes from my house. I’ve referred to Constitution Hill — the home of South Africa’s highest court and site of the historic Old Fort Prison — in my blog many times, including two years ago when I promised to write a post about Constitution Hill in the immediate future. I even held a photo exhibition at Constitution Hill last year.

And yet it has taken me nearly three years to write this post. Shameful.

Dad ConHill entance

My dad stands at the entrance to the “Natives’ section” of the former prison at Constitution Hill. The sign above reads: “It is said that no one really knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” (Quote by Nelson Mandela.)

I’ve subconsciously avoided writing about Constitution Hill because I’m overwhelmed by the historical and cultural significance of it. But when Dad was here I finally did the full tour. So now I have no excuse.

(Disclaimer: We arrived too late in the day to take a guided tour of Constitution Hill and I’m having trouble filling in my knowledge gaps. There is surprisingly little information available online. So please excuse any errors or oversights I make.)

The prison on Constitution Hill dates back to 1892, just six years after Joburg was founded, when it was used to house white prisoners. It later became a fort during the Anglo-Boer War, and then a prison again. During the 20th century the prison became notorious for its horrendous treatment of prisoners, especially black prisoners. Many famous political activists were imprisoned there, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Joe Slovo, Winnie Mandela (there was a women’s prison too), and many others. The prison closed in 1983.

cell doors

Isolation cells in the prison’s Section 5, where black prisoners were held.

prison cell

Prison cell in Section 4, with blanket models showing how prisoners slept. There is a soundtrack playing in the background with screams and shouts. The toilet, just to the right of this frame, is filled with filth.

prison toilet

Another cell that once housed dozens of prisoners.

Placards describe the horrors experienced by prisoners in Sections 4 and 5. Prisoners whipped, tortured, forced to strip naked outdoors and have their anuses searched. Prisoners raped and beaten. Prisoners isolated and deprived of food. Descriptions of dietary provisions for white, Indian/colored, and black prisoners. (Whites received the best food, blacks the worst.) Wherever possible, the displays include testimonies from former prisoners.

To add insult to injury, that unbelievably shameless, most degenerate species of human degradation, the white warders, would actually stand at the entrances to the toilets and watch us squatting over the floor toilet-pails trying to shit the slimes out of our bodies. I could not believe that type of indignity, it was beyond me to comprehend their nonchalance at their own debasement.”

–Molefe Pheto, Political Prisoner, 1975 (placard outside an outdoor latrine)

After touring Sections 4 and 5, we went to visit the Constitutional Court building. This building, which opened in 2004, is by all accounts a stunning cultural and architectural achievement. It was built using bricks from the infamous “Awaiting Trial Block” of the Old Fort Prison; the stairwells of the Awaiting Trial Block are left standing as a reminder. At the entrance to the building is a huge wooden mural displaying the South African Bill of Rights in each of the country’s official languages.

kids at Constitution Hill

Kids play on larger-than-life silhouette sculptures outside the Constitutional Court. The building and its surrounds are filled with public art illustrating various aspects of South African political history.

The inside of the Constitutional Court building is one big art gallery. The architecture itself is a work of art and the building is filled with works by accomplished South African artists. The building also houses the largest human rights library in the Southern Hemisphere.

Dad shooting art

One of my favorite sculptures in the Constitutional Court. I don’t know who made it; perhaps someone can fill me in.

The Constitutional Court, which is the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, is accessible to the public at all times. Dad and I both set off the metal detector when we walked in. We looked questioningly at the lady behind the desk but she barely acknowledged us. I found this refreshing.

The 11-member court was not in session at the time we visited (probably why security was so lax). Dad and I peaked into the elegant court chamber, waiting for someone to tell us not to enter. No one did. We walked in and looked around for signs telling us not to take photos. There were none.


Behind the justices’ desks is a narrow line of windows, which allow you to see the feet of passersby. The windows are a symbolic reminder that this is a democracy and court decisions cannot be made in secret. The public is always watching.

Dad at ConCourt

Don’t blame Dad — I forced him to do this.

Our last stop was the Old Fort structure itself, including the white prisoners’ block and the Nelson Mandela exhibition. By the time we got there the museum was about to close. So we walked up on top of the Old Fort ramparts instead.

I’ve been on the ramparts many times before. They’re one of my favorite Jozi vantage points.

rampart lookout

An old prison watchtower.

Hillbrow skyline

Hillbrow skyline — Constitution Hill is on the border of Hillbrow. There are signs along the ramparts that tell you what you’re looking at.

During this visit I made a big realization. South African political discourse is filled with references to protecting human dignity. Particularly last year, during the furor over Brett Murray’s portrayal of Jacob Zuma in “The Spear”, I heard people arguing again and again that the painting should be removed because it violated the president’s dignity.

I didn’t get it. In my mind, democracy was about protecting freedom above all else. I felt it was up to each individual to protect his or her own personal dignity.

But a visit to Constitution Hill, and especially to Sections 4 and 5, illustrates how South Africa’s apartheid government systematically stripped people of their dignity as a way of maintaining control. That stripping of dignity left scars on this country that will take years — generations, probably — to heal. This is why “human dignity” is the first founding value listed in Chapter 1 of South Africa’s constitution, listed even before freedom. I get it now.

Old Fort ramparts

Late afternoon on the ramparts. The Old Fort Prison is on the left. On the right are the symbolic glass towers built above the old stairwells of the Awaiting Trial Block.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here. So if you live in Joburg, don’t put off your visit to Constitution Hill like I did. Go see for yourself.

Update as of June 2015: Admission to Constitution Hill is R55 for adults and R22 for students. There is a restaurant on the premises, called the Hill, which serves great meals and refreshments, although I believe it is only open Monday through Friday during working hours. Constitution Hill is also a stop on the Joburg Red Bus route.

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