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Constitution Hill

by Nomad Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 04:56:52 AM EST

There is nothing to see, they say. "Such an awful city," say the South Africans we met abroad. "We are only driving through," the other travellers announced.

Of course everyone likes Cape Town, ribboned around Table Mountain, green and brilliant. I won't disagree. It is the hub of laid-back, the nexus where continents and oceans meet. The Mother City. A place for surf and sea, a place for relaxation, exquisite food, wines, in all: a mesmerising sense of what can be when the best of Africa and Europe come together and embrace. It is no wonder it draws people, and keeps people returning time and again. I'm content to be one of those people.

More than two weeks in Cape Town. But the poignancy of South Africa's soul, its racist history and divided present, was best embodied by just one visit in Johannesburg, that shunned and avoided city, when we climbed up to Constitution Hill.


Of course everyone knows about Robben Island in Cape Town. It's where the tourists flock to, queuing in droves at the sumptuous waterfront. It's what the leaflets say what should be seen. Not so for Constitution Hill, which is like an unexplored secret in South Africa's economic capital. The sprawling complex is positioned on the edgier rim of the city's inner bowels, skirting between the ruddy business offices of Braampark and the dreaded Hillbrow neighbourhood, on one of the highest hills of Johannesburg. Since 2004, it houses the Constitutional Court, the institute charged with upholding one of the world's finest constitutions. Born out of the country's harrowing past, the South African Constitution is the country's best hope and beacon for true equality for all.

By itself, paying a visit to the country's constitutional protector is a fine visit, good enough for an afternoon stroll for the aficionados. Except that Constitution Hill bridges the past and the present with a momentous and humbling connectivity, leaving me quiet, imprinted with emotional turmoil. Because Constitution Hill is situated at the premises of the Old Fort - the Old Fort Prison of Johannesburg.

Built late nineteenth century by orders of the Paul Kruger government, the Old Fort was ostensibly created to defend Johannesburg from the (forthcoming) British invasion. Kruger also put the fort in place as a maximum security prison, aiming for a better stranglehold on the burgeoning town of Johannesburg, and for ensuring taxes were properly flowing from the greatest reserve of gold to have ever been discovered to the republic's capital, Pretoria. As a fort, it didn't amount to much. The British, taking over in 1902, continued the fort's use as a prison.

The British also extended their segregation practices. An extension was built outside of the original fort: the notorious Number Four block, intended to incarcerate the "non-whites" apart from the Fort. In 1910, the complex grew further with the addition of a Women's Jail, divided up in sections for white and "non-white" prisoners. Ironically, Number Four prison was intended a temporary prison. It became a temporary prison for nearly eighty years. Only in 1983, when the overcrowded cells and inhumanity became too much of a hassle to deal with, the Old Fort Prison was closed down, and the prisoners shipped to a new maximum security prison, at Diepkloof (still operating to this day).

It was the Old Fort Prison that held more political prisoners during South Africa's decline into its apartheid past, not Robben Island. Mahatma Ghandi ended up here when he began embracing his satyagraha, in the wake of compulsory registration for the Indian community. Giants of the anti-apartheid movements were imprisoned here. Robert Sobukwe, founder of the (now near moribund) PAC. Albert Luthuli. The accused of the Rivonia Trial. Nelson Mandela was briefly kept here - but his star had already risen to such heights that he was kept separate, away from inmates because the government feared his influence. Mandela was kept in the hospital of the Old Fort, where he had the privilege of a bed, instead of a concrete floor and a blanket which was washed once a year.

Overcrowding. Typhoid. The "Tausa" - the degrading dance of inspection. The Emakhulukhuthu - the isolation cells of Number Four (photo on top of diary). The dread for isolation cell 5, as it was believed to be haunted. The 26ses. The 25th. In another Machiavellian move, the apartheid regime cultivated gangsterism inside their prisons, and it is a legacy that continues haunt and terrorize current prisons in South Africa.  We ask how many people have died in Number Four, but the guide smiles wryly. No one knows. People disappeared. No records were kept. When we exit, we feel sordid by the past, the deeds committed of humans to their brethren.

And yet.

On the grounds of that very soiled past now rises the building of the Constitutional Court, partly built on the prison ground, partly incorporating it, supporting its history. Already the entrance captured me: its vast wooden doors are decorated with panels that represent the 27 constitutional rights, depicted with South Africa's eleven official languages, sign language and Braille. The entire building - an airy mixture of steel, glass, slate - brims with symbolic design, tangible with emotion. The building's true triumph is widely advertised - the South Africans in the know are justly proud on it: the weatherworn bricks of the Old Fort Prison, painstakingly collected, have been re-incorporated into the building. In a whirl of stone, they encapsulate even the court room. A permanently visible keepsake of the past, the foundation of the new South Africa.

As almost always in South Africa, I'm left confused and conflicted. Not simply because of the experience of walking around the Old Fort, but because of the juxtaposition of stark contrasts it offers. The wholesomeness, and humanity, of South Africa's Constitution remain deeply at odds with the realities on the ground in the nation. The scale of division and rifts are rife, the severity of the nation's violence, the level of misogyny, the resistance against homosexuality, the scourge of rape crimes, all of it displays a sad lack of understanding the meaning of the Constitution.

From the ramparts of the Old Fort, the sprawl of Johannesburg around us - that awful city. The punctuated towers of Joburg General Hospital, the rundown apartments of Hillbrow (some of which are scheduled to be demolished), the dominating Telkom tower still cherishing the World Cup, the luxury suburbs on North Cliff in the far distance. Standing here, the court is situated closer to Hillbrow than the suburbs: closer to the poor, the destitute and desperate, than the well-raised middle class, most of them afloat on the economic heritage of apartheid. Even in a geographical sense, the Constitutional Court seems to be making a profound statement: we are here for every one.

Three months of travel, dozens of people, experiences, impressions. Hundreds of pictures. Three journals full. Dozens of people who've shaken their heads about Jozi. And yet the one place we visit which resonates with me to its core, is situated in the very city we set out from, and returned back to. It is complete.

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The nonsense of the potential new Dutch government.

I'm not going to enjoy writing it.

by Nomad on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 04:58:11 AM EST
Thanks for posting this. given your own history in that region, your reactions are highly illuminating

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 12:36:10 PM EST
Thanks Helen. I'll admit that, prior to the departure to Johannesburg, I was a tad bit anxious about my return there, in the light of my half-successful time there. That wriggling anxiety was gone after the first day.

While Johannesburg (and South Africa as a whole) can endlessly frustrate me, it also remains a place where I am, in some strange way, very much at home.

by Nomad on Mon Oct 4th, 2010 at 09:28:15 AM EST
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