Constitution Hill portrays the intriguing, and at times tragic, story of actual South African history, a past rife with social, cultural, and political injustices. This is also a triumphant one, as South Africa reclaimed its independence and now safeguards the rights and dignity of all citizens. At Constitution Hill, the journey to this state of liberty is traced and brought to life through a variety of tours and exhibits.
Johannesburg is Gauteng’s metropolitan epicentre and has played a significant role in the country’s history and heritage. The Constitutional Court is housed here, and it was built on the site of the Old Fort Prison Complex, Number Four. The courthouse is still one of the city’s most important historical sites. It also has a unique architectural style that distinguishes it, making it a fitting emblem of democracy.
Number Four used to be where political and other prisoners were held, and it was noted for its macabre atmosphere, based on the sometimes unjust convictions and sentencing of these individuals. Today, the majestic Constitutional Court stands proudly on these grounds, symbolising South Africa’s final liberation achieved through much bloodshed, heartbreak, and the constructive initiative of dedicated freedom fighters.
South Africans and international visitors are both welcome to visit the Constitutional Court and take in the intriguing history and artwork, which is not only beautiful but also tells volumes about the struggle. Visitors can observe the 11 justices at work in the public gallery, while the human rights library shows some fascinating cases and political events. This is, in fact, the Southern Hemisphere’s greatest human rights library.
When the new Constitutional Court sought a permanent location in 1995, the Prison Complex, which had grown decrepit and abandoned, provided the perfect look and feel. It was conveniently located and had a long and illustrious cultural past. During the apartheid government, 2 000 black South Africans went through this complex on a daily basis, many of them for fighting against the political system’s injustices and racial disparities. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Robert Sobukwe, and Albert Luthuli were among the inmates who endured interminable hours and frigid nights in the filthy conditions of the Number Four jail cells.
The jail was closed in 1983, yet it stood as a haunting reminder of the horrors of the past. This has now been turned into a lively, appealing museum dedicated to highlighting the human spirit’s resilience and the restoration of a free and fair South Africa.
Number Four’s detainees were subjected to torturous and degrading procedures. They were deloused, forced to do the Tauza, beaten, mistreated, and detained in filthy, overcrowded cells for long periods of time while awaiting trial. Female inmates were frequently stripped of their clothing, which humiliated them.
Inmates included disobedient British soldiers who fought alongside the Boers, striking mineworkers, defiance activists, those on trial for treason, and young people who were caught up in the Soweto Uprising. They did, however, include the men and women who were detained on a daily basis for violating the cruel Pass Laws.
Visitors to Constitution Hill will see how past injustices and suffering may be exploited to create a nation of strength, optimism, and hope.
We the People, a public engagement initiative at Constitution Hill, welcomes ex-prisoners and prison wardens back to participate in critical research-based courses. This is a long-term project, but it goes a long way toward restoring dignity and debriefing these individuals. These workshops employ photos, voices, tales, and sounds from jail to bring the real-life experiences of those who have been there to light. Many of the excursions and displays are based on this.
Photographs, recollections, and other artefacts are given to demonstrate the resilience of the human mind and body in the face of power abuse and its consequences.
The displays at Constitution Hill are interactive experiences that bring visitors in and engage them in a meaningful way. There are even spaces where you may write down your own memories and sentiments about the exhibitions, ensuring that this is not merely a record of the past, but also of the present and future.
Exhibition And Tours At Constitution Hill
Number Four – explore the prison and get a glimpse into the unfair, often inhumane, treatment of people based on their colour and their political affiliation.
The Mandela Cell – this includes a short film about former president, Nelson Mandela’s time at the Old Fort, as well as of his return to Constitution Hill some four decades later, which is rather stirring. This is a touching testimony of a man’s ability to inspire change, and to influence an entire society.
The Women’s Jail – although this beautiful Victorian-style building is currently under renovation, the hoarding around it currently acts as an exhibition honouring the efforts and victories of some of the influential women that shaped the country’s future, despite pain and opposition of the worst kind.
We the People Wall – leave your message on this wall for other visitors to see. The wall extends for the entire length of Constitution Square, and other important contributors include Nelson Mandela.
We the People – this is a photographic exhibition that tells the story of the first We the People road trip that visited rural communities all over South Africa in 2003.
Objects from the Past – an exhibition that showcases prison objects and emblems that have been preserved as testimony to the system of incarceration in apartheid South Africa.
Constitutional Court, 1 Kotze Street, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa
Best Time To Visit
Best during daylight hours