Yesterday, I spent the morning on Constitution Hill near the center of Jo’burg, which is the location of the Constitutional Court, the highest court in South Africa.
Similar to the U.S. Supreme Court, members of the court are appointed by the President (though they only serve for one non-renewable twelve year term), and this court deals solely with issues related to the country’s constitution. The South African constitution is especially interesting because it is one of the most liberal constitutions in the world in terms of rights and freedoms guaranteed (I believe it is the only constitution that includes a proviso against discrimination based on sexual orientation). This is especially notable because the constitution is more liberal than the majority of the population, who do not necessarily support certain provisos like the one above.
The liberal guarantees of freedoms and human rights rises directly from the recent memory of apartheid. There is a strong desire to create a new South Africa, a “rainbow nation,” where no one will ever faced the discrimination and oppression of the past. The location of the Constitutional Court and the museums created on Constitutional Hill demonstrate this commitment to remembering the past in order to create a more equal future.
Constitution Hill is built on the site of the Old Fort prison, which was one of the most notorious prisons in the country. Nelson Mandela awaited trial here; Mahatma Ghandi was held in the prison.
A large portion of the original structure has been torn down to make way for the new court building, but bricks from the original have been preserve and used to build the new court. Further, the original prisons have been turned into museums that are accessible to the public. As the Constitutional Court brings about forward-thinking change based on the new constitution, its members and the public are vividly reminded of the past in order to keep it from ever being recreated.
Having been to so many museums alone (and finding the Hill to be fairly daunting in terms of things to see), I decided to take a tour with a guide (since one was gathering soon after I arrived). While I usually dislike guided tours (because you cannot move at your own pace), I really enjoyed this one. We were given plenty of time for exploration, got additional information, and got a chance to go into the court building, which was not supposed to happen this day because the court was in session. Also, it was nice to be with a group!
Our first stop was the women’s prison, which was separated into two sections: one for white women and one for non-white women. The description of conditions in the non-white section was shocking: little food, harsh conditions, little time spent outside of the tiny concrete cells.There was a small, inadequate in-house “hospital.” Many children were born here; women described being eight months pregnant when they were arrested and detained. These children stayed in the prison with their mothers, contributing to the inhumane harshness of the prison conditions.
In contrast, the white women’s section seemed like a hotel. The cells were significantly larger and held fewer prisoners. They included beds, toilets, and some even had hard wood floors. This is not to say that the prison was wonderful, but it was nothing compared to what I saw and heard about the non-white section.
The second stop was Number Four, the prison for non-white males. The conditions described were horrendous: one sign described it well, “This jail was not designed for rehabilitation but for punishment.” And the punishment was brutal. There was little food and water, toilets and showers were limited, men were kept inside for twenty-three hours per day. Alex La Guma, a famous author (I’m current reading his collection of short stories A Walk in the Night), was held here and described the conditions as the breeding grounds for diseases like typhoid.
Within cells built to hold thirty (in cramped conditions), sixty men were often held due to overcrowding. These cells were maintained by prison gangs, the leaders of which would create “luxurious” conditions for themselves by forcing those at the bottom of the prison totem pole to give up their food, blankets, space, and shower time. La Guma paints a picture of this system in his story “Tattoo Marks and Nails.” The gang leaders were often the “hardened” criminals (those arrested for robbery, assault, murder), while those who receive the worse abuse were political prisoners (who were often described to wardens as “terrorists”). Even worse than these conditions wee the isolation units, which often held political prisoners. Here, the diet was tiny and then men were often abused, only allowed out of their cells for one hour each day.
I feel like my descriptions do not to justice to the reality of these conditions. The men and women held in these prisons were treated brutally; it is a reality that is difficult to face and even more difficult to describe.
However, it is powerful to see this reality on the site of the Constitutional Courts, where important decisions about freedoms for all South Africans are made. While this past is difficult and terrible to face (and can bring about painful memories and anger), it is important that this history continue to serve as a reminder as to why valuing human rights (as the South African constitution does) is a crucial task. I’m further impressed by this piece of living history because it keeps the Constitutional Court accessible and accountable to all South Africans.
I completed my time on Constitution Hill by meandering to the Old Fort, where white men were imprisoned. While there, I walked along the fort’s ramparts (humming the Star Spangled Banner, “o’er the ramparts we watched….” I don’t think I’ve ever been on the ramparts of a fort before).
After the difficulties of seeing the jails, it was nice to walk along the ramparts, which provide a little bit of a 360-degree view of Jo’burg, again a vision of a new South Africa being formed as well as a reminder of the past and present inequalities. Overall, it was a very thought-provoking and insightful morning.