On our second full day in South Africa, we headed directly into the heart of Johannesburg (or Jo’burg as it’s called by the locals). Our first stop was Constitution Hill, the site of both the new Constitutional Court and the Old Fort Prison Complex. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but suffice it to say that I was blown away by the visit. In fact, I think I’d rank it as one of my top 3 favorite places that we visited during our trip. I am, indeed, a prison junkie. So long as I don’t end up inside the walls for a…longer visit, I’m okay with having that status.
As you enter Constitution Hill, one of the first sights that greets you is a set of freestanding staircases. These staircases, which formerly lead to the awaiting-trial block, were preserved as a reminder for the price of conflict….and of freedom.
Let me begin by saying that our tour guide was fantastic (that’s him in the striped shirt below). He was extremely knowledgeable and his tour was very thorough. We began our visit by touring the former women’s section of the prison.
The history of South Africa is a complicated one. This prison complex housed everyone from a serial killer (I’ll show you her picture later) to political prisoners (Mandela was awaiting trial here) to regular black citizens who were unfortunate enough to be caught violating the segregation laws of Apartheid.
I want to point out that while we are smiling in the picture below (mainly because I was trying to figure out how to look unobtrusive, but only ended up looking like I needed to use the facilities), we were all well aware of the suffering that took place in this facility. Sadness permeates the entire building.
After completing our tour of the women’s side, we headed over to the older part of the prison, or Number Four. In the open air shelter that serves as the dining hall (pictured below), inmates had to eat their food while sitting on the floor and facing forward. What this meant was that they were forced to face the makeshift latrines set up in the same area. With no proper separation between bathrooms and dining, this was meant to humiliate those who had to use the facilities while subjecting the diners to the sights and smells of the bathrooms.
I think this shocked my mother the most during our visit, but truth be told, today’s prisons (at least in the States) still have an utter lack of privacy that would shock most civilians.
As we contemplated the pains and sorrows of imprisonment, we next headed over to the newly created Constitutional Court – South Africa’s version of the Supreme Court. The building is so incredibly steeped in symbolism that literally every brick has significance. They had to demolish part of the prison complex to make room for the Court, so they used the old prison bricks to build the facility.
The huge beaded flag seen in the picture below was handmade by tribal women and looking out the windows to the right, you can see one of the preserved awaiting-trial block stairwells. The many windows in the building are meant to convey openness and honesty. So much of South Africa’s struggles were done so in darkness and secrecy and so this Court operates in plain view, open to the public.
Literally ever design decision has significance and while the building was born out of sorrow, you can’t help but feel uplifted and hopeful for the future. It is a beautiful facility and I think we were all quite amazed by the level of thought that went into it.
For students of justice and the law, the visit to Constitution Hill was such an amazing journey. In the next post, I’ll detail our visit to Soweto and the Apartheid museum.