Constitution Hill, A Window To South Africa’s Past (Part One)

Image By:

Constitution Hill in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, is home to the Constitutional Court (ConCourt), the foundation of all that is democratic in South Africa.

A commanding presence, Constitution Hill overlooks Johannesburg and provides a unique perspective on the City of Gold and its rich history. This site is home to the Constitutional Court, Women’s Gaol museum, Number Four museum, and the Old Fort museum. Whether you are a local or a tourist, a visit to the Hill (as it is fondly referred to) will give you a better understanding of how far the country has come. Once a place of inhumanity and brutality, it is now a place of justice and learning, and an engine of growth and transformation for downtown Johannesburg.

The Old Fort

Originally built in 1892 as a prison by Paul Kruger’s Zuid-Afrikaanse Republiek (ZAR) and used briefly as a military defence post during the South African War (1899-1902), new buildings were added to the fort-like prison in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These included the Natives’ Section and isolation cells known as sections Four and Five, where black male prisoners were held, a Women’s Goal in 1907, and an Awaiting Trial building in the 1920s.

Collectively, these buildings were known as the Fort, which is infamous for its abhorrent conditions and the brutal treatment of prisoners – common criminals and ordinary men and women who had contravened colonial and apartheid legislation. Initially only white male prisoners were held here, except for Nelson Mandela who was given a bed in the hospital section before the Rivonia Trial in 1962.

Women’s Jail

The Women’s Gaol was a charming, Victorian brick building that housed humiliated and brutalised female prisoners, which included criminals and murderers, as well as anti-apartheid activists. The infamous murderess Daisy de Melker was held here, as were prominent political stalwarts such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Albertian Sisulu and Fatima Meer. An information board in the museum today quotes political activist Barbara Hogan: “I could hear a doctor screaming at her saying, ‘You say your baby is sick, but if you cared about your baby, you would carry a pass.’”

To be continued…

Related article: Constitution Hill, A Window To South Africa’s Past (Part Two)

By Melissa Jane Cook.