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


The sign above the entrance to the Natives’ section, Number Four, of Constitution Hill in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, is a quote from Mandela: “It is said that no one really knows a nation until one has been inside its jails”

Originally built to house 997 prisoners, Number Four housed 2 200 and it was here that thousands of black men were imprisoned and brutalised, yet many survived and defied their jailors. Walking down a dark corridor onto a concrete courtyard on a drizzly, gloomy day gives one a glimpse into what the prisoners must have felt when they arrived at the frightening Number Four. During the apartheid era, police would arrive numerous times a day with prisoners, who were given a prisoner number for identification.

Detainees were strip-searched and hosed down, in summer or winter, and forced to perform the dehumanising ‘tausa’ – a diabolical movement that allowed the prison warders to check if the inmates were smuggling any weapons or contraband up their rectums. Political prisoner, Indres Naidoo, describes it: “When performing ‘tausa’ the naked person would leap in the air, spinning around and opening the legs wide, while clapping his hands overhead and then in the same moment coming down, making clicking sounds with the mouth and bending his body forward so as to expose his open rectum to the warders’ inspection.”

Photojournalist Bob Gosani secretly managed to photograph the ‘tausa’ from the top floor of a nurses’ home overlooking the prison.

Living conditions at Number Four were excruciating and barbaric. Today, the food area, where prisoners collected their food from trolleys before moving off to eat in the yard or cells, food drums display the ghastly menus. African National Congress (ANC) stalwart, Joe Slovo, described the drums in his unfinished autobiography: ‘The first drum, marked ‘Congress One’, contained cooked chunks of beef or pork for the white accused. The ‘Congress Two’ drum, for coloureds and Indian prisoners, contained either porridge or boiled vegetables on top of which floated a few pieces of fatty meat that were most probably from the discarded cut-offs from the ‘Congress One’ drum. The ‘Congress Three’ drum for black prisoners was always meatless and the contents alternated between a plastic-textured porridge and a mixture of boiled mealies and beans.’

There were only eight, eastern-style toilets that offered no privacy and were in close proximity to the food area. Writer and political prisoner, Alex La Guma, wrote: ‘One of the reasons for my disease [typhoid] is found in this jail. Filth. The mats are filthy, the blankets are filthy, the latrines are filthy, the food is filthy, the utensils are filthy, and the convicts’ clothes are filthy. The latrines overflow and make a stench.’

Showers were allowed once a week, but prisoners were often denied a wash for months. The allocated shower time was 30 minutes for the 2 000 prisoners, and the gang members took most of this time. The inmates would then be forced to use the toilet to wash their faces, or would rub soap on themselves and wait for it to rain.

The communal cells housed between 60 and 70 prisoners; they were only built for 30 and as a result were overcrowded, dirty and badly ventilated. A small window allowed some light in and, ironically, as authorities tried to break the spirit of the prisoners, these communal cells became an area to build courage and discuss resistance.

The inmates gave each other strength and sang resistance songs to entertain, comfort and maintain solidarity.

As if life inside was not harsh enough, made worse by the hostility of the prison wardens, there was also a hierarchy in the cells. You slept according to status: the gang leaders in the place of most comfort; the guards protected them and then the bush, or slaves, were near the toilet ­– a stinking space where the lowest in the cell food chain were abused. The unsanitary environment created the perfect conditions for diseases, including typhoid and enteric fever.

Emakhulukhuthu, an isiZulu word meaning the ‘deep dark hole’, was reserved for the harshest punishments. These were the isolation cells, where ‘lunatics, juveniles and those with infectious diseases’ were kept. Here, prisoners here spent 23 hours a day inside, subsisting on a diet of rice water. ‘They could officially be held here for 30 days but some spent over a year in these cells,’ states one of the information boards.

To pass the time, the inmates were creative and did blanket sculpting. At the end of each week, the prisoner with the most artistic blanket sculpture won a reward. The conditions here were so depraved that when the prisoners were moved to Diepsloot Prison, known as Sun City, they said it was like moving to a hotel and was luxurious compared to the horrific conditions they had to previously endure.

Number Four is now a stark memorial to the thousands of men who were confined within its walls, deprived of the most rudimentary of human rights, and it remains as it was when it was closed in 1983. Photographic, audio and video material captures the shameful heritage of the site. Artefacts of prison life are also on display, including recreations of the blanket and soap sculptures.

Jailed For Fighting For Freedom

Mahatma Gandhi was the first to apply the concept of non-violent civil disobedience in South Africa, against the racial segregation laws of the time. The exhibition in the Old Fort, ‘Gandhi: prisoner of conscience’, focuses on the years Gandhi spent in Johannesburg, from 1902 until 1914, when he left South Africa at the age of 46.

Of his experiences in South Africa, he said: “Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now. My love for South Africa and my concern for her problems are no less than for India.” Mandela is quoted on the walls of the exhibition: ‘The spirit of Gandhi may well be a key to human survival in the 21st century.’

Constitution Hill has witnessed it all: South Africa’s history of injustice, detention and imprisonment, as well as democracy at work. People who have passed through its walls include Gandhi, Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Ahmed Kathrada, treason trialists of the late 1950s, and students and schoolchildren from the 1976 Soweto uprising, as well as thousands of others active in the apartheid struggle, alongside common criminals. This multipurpose complex functions as a national symbol of a new South Africa and a public space where South Africans, and others, can debate and define the democratic order and this new world.

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

By Melissa Jane Cook.