Constitution Hill was once one of the most notorious addresses in South Africa. The jail on Braamfontein ridge was first built in 1893 and turned into a fort a few years later during the Boer War.
Used as a prison until 1983, it held hundreds of thousands of ordinary everyday folk, both sexes, black and white and every shade in between. They’d been arrested for everything from breaking the Pass Laws, brewing beer (illegal if you were black) to homosexual sex, burglary or murder. But it was also used to imprison a string of South Africa’s most famous political prisoners from Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and Winnie Mandela. Number Four, the prison block for black inmates became a byword for terror.
The Court Building
After the handover, this notorious site was deliberately chosen as the site of South Africa’s new Constitutional Court. This is the country’s Supreme Court, designed to uphold one of the most democratic and freedom-loving constitutions in the world.
The court building, designed by three young South African architects, Janina Masojada and Andrew Makin from Durban, and Paul Wygers from Johannesburg, is based on the traditional concept of the ‘indaba tree’. African elders would traditionally call a tribal council to meet and talk under a meeting tree. The roof beams have 'human dignity, equality and freedom'' written into them in the handwriting of all the judges sitting at the time of its construction. The mosaic roof represents the dappled shade. The 27 key clauses of the Constitution are carved into the giant timber foyer doors. Within the courtroom a ribbon of glass represents the transparency of the proceedings. It was built on the site of the old Awaiting Trial block and four of the original stairwells were kept and bricks from the original block were used in construction.
We the People
Beyond the courthouse, you can visit Number Four and Mandela’s cell and browse the walls of photographic exhibits. Objects, photos, taped testimony and film give first hand accounts of life within the prison by many of the inmates, the methods used to control and punish them and the extraordinary efforts they made to survive.
Their stories, the court building and the Fort Memorial surrounding it are extraordinarily poignant, combining truth and reconciliation – the watchwords of the new South Africa – in a moving testimony to the past and hope for the future.
Address: Constitutional Court, Johannesburg
Tel: +27 (0)11 381-3100
Open: Mon-Fri 9am–5pm, Sat 10am–3pm, last tour 1 hr earlier.