Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Old Prison at Constitution Hill

August is Women's Month in South Africa and throughout the month one of Joburg's most interesting historical sites - the prison on Constitution Hill - have been offering free entrance for women and you can get a free guided tour too!

It seemed like a great deal and with little thought as to what this place actually was I ambled along for some Wednesday afternoon sightseeing. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for. This museum offers up a no-holds-barred, dark and disturbing glimpse into the depths of South Africa's recent history. In parts it is a harrowing experience. But also one I cannot recommend highly enough. Constitution Hill is a fantastic museum and all the people who work there are wonderful. It is disturbing, powerful, historical, educational, frightening in some places and beautiful in others. Very well worth visiting.

Please note: The Constitutional Court is also based here. This is an inspirational piece of modern architecture that enshrines all of modern South Africa's freedoms. Built from the rubble of former prison blocks it is designed to be open, accessible and transparent. I had just missed the last guided tour of the day by the time I got round to this bit, so I didn't get to enjoy what I am sure would have been a very uplifting end to my visit. Hopefully I'll get  to see inside next time.

Number Four

Number Four was the name given to the prison block set over for 'native men' (essentially all non-white males). It was built between 1902 and 1904 and almost from its very beginning was overcrowded and insanitary.

One of the first famous people to be imprisoned here was Mahatma Gandhi who was jailed for violating pass laws and for leading the satyagraha movement in Johannesburg. There is a nice exhibit which explains Gandhi's work in Johannesburg and details how he spent his time in the prison. This is the only museum I know of in Johannesburg that really looks at one of the city's most incredible former residents (there's also an exhibit in Museum Africa, but in my opinion it is not nearly as good).

Gandhi made these sandals in prison and gave them to General Smuts before he left for India. 25 years later Smuts returned them saying "I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man"

After the Gandhi rooms the prison yard slopes down hill with the surrounding cells left almost exactly as they were when people were last prisoners here. The paint is peeling, the creaky thick steel doors are left ajar, there are blankets on the floor, rusty, dirt filled toilets sit in the corner of the rooms. Videos are also projected onto the walls of former prisoners giving first hand testimony of what it was like to be incarcerated here.

Prisoners at Number Four were not separated according to their crimes and each prisoner received the same inhumane treatment. Political prisoners, murderers, communists, shoplifters, rapists, gangsters and those who had infringed the absurd 'pass laws' (forbidding non-white people to travel into white areas without a special 'pass') all shared the same huge cells.

Prisoners were routinely strip searched in the most humiliating ways and starved for days as punishment. There was torture, beatings, hard labour, rape and gang violence. Number Four was a place of indescribable cruelty.

At the bottom of the prison yard you reach a watch tower which hangs over the entrance to the 'isolation cells'. To the left is a room which shows how prisoners attempted to find beauty and humanity during their imprisonment by making artworks out of their prison blankets and creating trinkets from butt ends and pieces of scrap paper.

To the right is a room which details the methods used to torture prisoners. The weapons are kept in a large metal case which has little windows which you can glimpse through to see pieces of whips, batons, cuffs, metal rods...There's also a horrible device on display which the prisoners would be tied to. It was last used in 1983. There was a video testimony projected on the back wall, but I have to be honest, I chickened out. I couldn't take any more of that room, it was terrifying, I had to get out.

I then walked down to the 'isolation cells'. These are tiny cupboard like cells where prisoners would be kept for days at a time and left to survive on only rice water. It is said that these cells are haunted. Now, I am not trying to joke around here, I am convinced that there are bad spirits here. I was the only one down there at the time and I swear I could not go through those doors - it just felt like an evil place, there was something horrible about the air. I walked down to get near them, heard a door bang somewhere and decided to get the hell out of there.

The netting on top is rusty barbed wire

The Women's Gaol

Women were also held prisoner at Constitution Hill, in segregated areas for whites and non-whites. The conditions in the white cells were considerably better than elsewhere, although the white women were also made to perform hard labour, were beaten and subjected to extended periods in solitary confinement -  sometimes for months at a time.

The majority of female non-white prisoners during apartheid were locked up here for not carrying their passbooks. Often it was a simple case of a woman from a township coming to shop at a cheaper city centre supermarket and not having her documents with her when approached by the police. In the last years of apartheid when black people began to live in previously fancy all-white areas such as Hillbrow, black women were put in prison here for 'crimes' such as; holding hands with a white man (the white man was not prosecuted) and for being a suspected prostitute (which in the case detailed at the museum meant walking through Hillbrow in high fashion designer clothes).

Pregnant women and those with babies were not given preferential treatment and over the years hundreds of children were born and spent the first years of their lives inside these walls. As a particularly cruel and unnecessary rule women were stripped of their shoes and underwear on arrival. They were given one sanitary pad which they had to tie to the tops of their legs for the week when they had their period. They even had to show the warders that they were bleeding to get one. Female campaigners in the 1970s successfully forced the prison to provide underwear and suitable sanitary protection for the women of Constitution Hill.

The Old Fort

After all that misery I didn't really feel like taking in another prison exhibit and was seriously feeling the need to see sunshine, breathe the fresh air of freedom and see people happily going about their day (I saw only one other visitor during my whole time in Number Four). A walk along the fort ramparts was the perfect thing to do.

The Old Fort at the centre of the Constitution Hill complex was originally built under Paul Kruger as a defensive fortress to protect against the British during the Anglo-Boer war. Following the war it was turned into a prison for white men. One notable exception to that rule is Nelson Mandela who was held here during the Rivonia Trial.

The ramparts provide a fantastic view over the skyscrapers of the CBD and a tantalising glimpse into the tower blocks and bustling streets of Hillbrow. As I've mentioned before Hillbrow was once a fancy white suburb. Nowadays it strikes fear into the hearts of many Joburgers and is often declared a bit of a no-go zone. It has many run-down or derelict buildings, is desperately overcrowded and has problems with drugs and crime. That said, I know that Hillbrow is also probably amongst the most vibrant and interesting parts of this city. I pass through there all the time on the bus and the streets exude a special kind of enticing warmth and inimitable African urbanity.

Now, I'm not about to go on a sightseeing stroll by myself on a Wednesday afternoon through Hillbrow – definitely don't have the cojones to do that any time soon. But I will find my way into happening Hillbrow somehow (most likely with one of the awesome local tour guides). Just watch this space!

And finally...The Two Talking Yonis #1

In the women's jail, as part of Women's Month, there was a special art installation by Reshma Chhiba. As the blurb had it: “it appeals to spiritual power and defiance”. 
Maybe I had to see a man walk awkwardly through this to get the full experience... ;)

The Talking Yoni is a giant, soft and squidgy, walk-in vagina.

How I got there: It is really easy to get to Constitution Hill. Just walk straight up the hill from Park Station and follow the signs (about a 10-15min walk). 
Open: 09:00 - 17:00, Sat, Sun 10:00 - 15:00. Make sure you arrive early, there's lots to see.


  1. Hey, if you're interested in Gandhi you should check out this place in Norwood. Have you heard of it?

    Great post and pics. Let me know when you want to come to Hillbrow -- I can arrange it!

    1. Never heard of this place - I am definitely putting it on my must go places list! I'm really interested in Gandhi, I've been reading his biography and it's mind-blowing. Such a humble, wise and peaceful man, it's cool to think how his time in Joburg influenced the things he went on to do.
      Would LOVE to come to Hillbrow - like soo much! Better arrange it for October when I get back and have my 'wheels' ;) Pencilling in already...