Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about South Africa's Constitutional Court - which is a pretty extraordinary place on all counts - is the degree of access that the public have to the building: in a post 9/11 world, it is both refreshing and somewhat surprising.
I visited on a Saturday morning as part of an excellent guided tour for a small but select group of people - me! Nonetheless the tour went ahead with a party of one, and it was one of the most interesting and thoughtprovoking mornings I've spent in a long time.
To access the Court building, you need to go through a metal detector and bag scanner - identical to the security that you'd encounter at an airport. Thereafter you can walk straight into the courtroom and - amazingly - right around to the bench where the Constitutional Court judges sit. This photo is taken from behind the chair where the Chief Justice sits, and it was utterly enthralling to see the court as he would during proceedings. A braver person than I could probably have pulled out his leather chair and sat down, but I didn't feel that presumptuous!
At the time of writing in May 2012, the current Chief Justice is Mogoeng Mogoeng, a highly controversial appointment that was much opposed by civil society and widely seen as a move by President Zuma (no stranger to courts himself, although usually in the role of defendant) to rein in the independent judiciary.
At the time of his surprise appointment, Mogoeng was roundly criticised for his lack of experience and lenient sentencing, most notably in the case of child rapes where sentence was mitigated because of the 'non violent' nature of the crimes. In a country that draws a very clear separation between the church and the judiciary, his ability to maintain this separation has also been questioned due to his religious beliefs. Mogoeng is an ordained minister in Winners Chapel International (yes, I know it sounds like a gambling institution), a Nigerian evangelical church that believes that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured by religious counselling, which calls into question his willingness to protect the rights of gays enshrined in the South African Constitution.
Hillbrow is perhaps Johannesburg's most shameful suburb: a once thriving area that was considered trendy and cosmopolitan as late as the mid 80s, which has since descended in a maelstrom of lawlessness and chaos. Hillbrow stands as a shocking example of what happens when inner city decay takes hold and neither politicians not police forces have the guts to intervene to halt its slide into the abyss.
Hillbrow was Jo'burg's 'flat land', and the first area in which high rise development established - a style of housing that never really caught on elsewhere. It particularly attracted immigrants and people moving to the city from the rural areas and at its height, was populated by a vibrant community of young adults, interspersed with cultured Eastern European emigres and superbly assertive Jewish widows. As a result, it was a very liberal place with more than its fair share of artists and musicians, and in stark comparison to the straitlaced society of apartheid South Africa, it welcomed the gay community and the first 'mixed race' couples.
Hillbrow was the first area of Johannesburg where the police turned a blind eye to enforcing the Group Areas Act, long before this heinous piece of oppressive legislation that caused so much misery was repealed. Although this was initially a blessing for the mixed race couples and 'people of colour'who settled here, it ultimately became Hillbrow's downfall. In the late 1980s, the white middle class population began to move out of Hillbrow into other areas, and was replaced by a massive influx of black immigrants, both from the rural areas of South Africa, and, notably from Nigeria. The police turned a blind eye to the increasingly blatent activities of prostitutes and pimps, drug lords and illegal squatters and thus started the cycle of overcrowding and lawlessness that triggered Hillbrow's precipitous decline into the crimeridden slum that it is today.
I don't scare easily, but Hillbrow is one suburb where even as a fairly street savvy local, I would no longer feel comfortable venturing in daylight, let alone after dark. And yet when I first moved to Jo'burg in the late 80's, I lived in the neighbouring suburb of Berea and used to walk up into Hillbrow to do my grocery shopping at the Checkers supermarket on Kotze Street!
These days, I am sad to report that the only way I'd recommend you experience Hillbrow is from a safe distance. The best vantage point that I have found is on the eastern ramparts of the Johannesburg Fort (part of the Constitution Hill complex, which also includes the Constitutional Court, the Women's Prison and No.4 gaol), which gives you a great view into the heart of Hillbrow's tower blocks. There are also a number of very informative boards here which illustrate the various buildings that you can see from this point - including the iconic Hillbrow Tower- and give a potted history of the most significant. You can also get a rather different perspective on Hillbrow (and indeed the rest of the Jo'burg CBD) from the Top of Africa viewpoint on the top floor of the Carlton Centre.
I am hoping against hope that one day Hillbrow will experience the inner city renewal that has occurred elsewhere in the CBD and that it will be uplifted to its former quirky glory, but I'm not holding my breath as I fear that this may be a very long wait ...
You have to hand it to Constitution Hill. It really is an extraordinary place, which somehow manages to marry together wildly disparate elements, such as the Constitutional Court (flagship of South Africa's newly fledged democracy), the Women's Prison and No.4 prison (hell holes even by the shockingly low prison standards of the apartheid era) and the old Johannesburg Fort.
The site - on what was originally known as Hospital Hill - is located slightly north of the Jo'burg CBD. It was first developed in 1892 as a prison to incarcerate the increasingly large number of criminals in the wake of the Witwatersrand Gold Rush which followed George Harrison's discovery of gold at Langlaagte in 1886.
The site was redeveloped by President Paul Kruger in 1896 following the disastrous Jameson Raid: a spectacularly bungled British attempt to oust Boer control of the booming gold field, which probably cost Cecil John Rhodes the knighthood he so desperately wanted. The site was further fortified with ramparts to defend Johannesburg from advancing British colonial forces during the Anglo Boer War which raged between 1899 and 1902.
Johannesburg fell to the British in 1900 was subsequently used to inter Boer commanders who were captured by the British during the Anglo Boer War. After the Boer surrender in 1902, the Fort reverted to its original function as a prison, housing only white prisoners in what were known as No.1 and No.2 prisons, to distinguish them from the adjacent 'native' No.4 prison next door. In this - as in so many other things - Nelson Mandela was a notable exception being imprisoned in the hospital section in 1962 when he was awaiting trial for treason.
The Fort is odd in that the entrance is so plain that you could easily walk past it without realising what was inside - something I did myself for years. The ornate 'Beau Geste' frontage pictured above is actually the inside of the gate that faces onto the interior of the complex: heaven alone knows why this peculiar 'about turn' in conventional design was favoured! The coat of arms was designed by South Africa's best known sculptor, Anton von Wouw (originally a Dutchman who wholeheartedly embraced Afrikaaner culture) who is better known for his exquisite bronze sculptures at Church Square and the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria and the Women's Monument in Bloemfontein.
One of the most interesting things to do if you visit the Fort is to stroll around the ramparts, which command an unusual view out over the surrounding area. This isn't a great vantage point for the CBD, as the view is obstructed by later buildings (rather go to the Top of Africa at the Carlton Centre for this), but it is an excellent point from which to look into Hillbrow and also gives an interesting perspective on Jo'burg's larny, leafy inner northern suburbs.
I have put off writing my tips on the Constitution Hill complex - of which the Women's Prison forms part - because it's taken time to synthesise my thoughts on the very challenging subject matter.
The Women's Prison was constructed in 1910 after a Commission of Inquiry in 1904 found that the existing Johannesburg Prison was 'poorly constructed with inadequate facilities' and required a separate section to accommodate the increasingly large number of female prisoners. The design was based on the 'modern' layout of late Victorian prisons, with cell blocks radiating out from a round central atrium. This design was pioneered by the British prison reformer Jeremy Bentham, and was intended not only to provide the prisoners with natural light, but also for the more sinister purpose of ensuring that they could be kept under observation at all times.
Although the prison housed petty criminals and the odd 'celebrity' - such as Daisy de Melker, who was later executed in Pretoria for poisoning several members of her own family - the majority of prisoners, especially from the 1950s onwards were women who were being interned for breaking the notorious 'Pass Laws', which formed the cornerstone of apartheid by restricting the movement of the non-white population.
High profile female political figures were in and out of the prison with depressing regularity. Albertina Sisulu (wife of Walter) had the dubious distinction of being the first person to be imprisoned under the General Amendment Act which allowed detention without trial for up to 90 days, and spent two months in solitary confinement. During her periods of imprisonment, Ma Sisulu played a particularly important role by drawing on her nursing experience to try and look after the health of her fellow prisoners, and was on hand to help a pregnant Winnie Mandela when she threatened to miscarry. Barbara Hogan - a former Cabinet minister and the first South African woman to be convicted of high treason - was also held here in solitary confinement for a year, although, being white, she was imprisoned in a separate block.
The conditions under which the women lived were atrocious, but what resonates most powerfully is the systematic humiliation and degradation that the prisoners endured. A a simple example, female prisoners were issued with a short schoolgirlish uniform and were not allowed to wear underwear, which was the cause of huge embarassment as they spent long hours on their hands and knees polishing floors. A display on the process that prisoners had to undergo to access the most basic of sanitary protection during their menstrual periods underlines the fact that seemingly no opportunity to assault the basic dignity of prisoners was overlooked, and moved me to tears.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this extraordinarily moving museum is the remarkable balance and dispassion that is applied to presenting highly emotive subject matter. The uncomfortable dynamic between prisoners and their female wardens is particularly well portrayed, and unexpectedly highlights the vulnerability that the wardens felt.
Most visitors will visit the Women's Prison as part of one of the excellent (and affordable) guided tours of the Constitution Hill complex. This will give you an excellent overview - particularly if you're not very familiar with South African history - but be warned that because there's so much to see, it is a bit of a whistlestop tour. My suggestion would therefore be that you allow yourself time at the end of the tour to wander around by yourself and read the outstanding display material at your own pace.
In a city that is developing more and more quality museums and exhibitions to confront our challenging 20th century history, this one - at least for me - is possible the most moving. Just be warned that it is anything but a jolly experience that will probably leave you feeling both shellshocked and melancholy, so I would recommend that you plan your schedule so that you do something more upbeat afterwards.
As with all aspects of the design of the Constitutional Court complex, the architecture of the Great African Stairs leading to the Court is steeped in symbolism.
The Stairs were constructed using recycled bricks that were reclaimed from the Awaiting Trial Block on its demolition. The architects describe the stairs as a 'stitched seam' uniting the Constitutional Court with the historical structures of No.4 prison, and whilst I'm not usually a great fan of overblown 'design speak', you actually do get a sense of the steps being a uniting feature.
As you can see from the photo, the design incorporates wheelchair ramps, although it's a steep slope, and the wheelchair bound will need help negotiating the small steps at the end of each section of ramp. Once you get to the top of the hill, things flatten out, and the Constitutional Court, Women's Prison and the Old Johannesburg Fort should be fairly accessible to the mobility-impaired, although access to No.4 prison and the ramparts of the Fort will be more of a challenge.
A welcome feature of the design are the indigenous trees that have been planted at intervals on the staircase, which lend much needed shade in the summer months. If you're planning to visit over this period in particular, note that many parts of the Constitution Hill complex are fairly exposed and it would be easy to burn and/or dehydrate, so take sensible precautions by slapping on some sunscreen, wearing a hat and lightwear clothing that gives you some coverage and carrying a water bottle.
Extreme conditions often give rise to bizarre artforms, especially when there are few materials to hand - as evidenced by the unlikely 'blanket art' that evolved in Johannesburg's notorious Number Four prison.
Sundays were days of 'leisure' in the prison, and prisoners were left with time on their hands and precious little to do with it. Goodness only knows who came up with the idea of using their blankets to create artwork, but it's certainly as original a means of creative expression as you'll come across anywhere on your travels!
A strictly hierarchical social order of prisoners evolved in the prison, and cells were run by gangsters who were granted preferential treatment by warders - and particularly inmates - in return for protection. My theory is that the artform probably started when prisoners attempted to curry favour with the kingpins by giving them extra blankets which were then used to create makeshift chairs (see the third photo), and that this slowly evolved into a more complex artform, such as the surreal blanket tank pictured above. But that's just my personal hunch, and sadly I haven't been able to find out more on this intriguing form of artistic expression.
One of the highlights of visiting Number Four was the superb use of blanket art to illustrate the sleeping arrangements in the cells - looking at the second photo, the sense of people asleep under their blankets is uncanny!
Of all the apartheid era prisons in South Africa, 'Number Four' prison - which now forms part of the Constitution Hill complex - is perhaps the one that 'enjoyed' the reputation for the most abysmal living conditions. Prisons such as Robben Island may be more famous, but were only used to incarcerate prisoners who had stood trial and had been convicted. By contrast, Number Four was used to inter awaiting trial prisoners as well as those who had been sentenced: as a result, virtually all the ANC stalwarts, as well as notables such as Mahatma Gandhi passed through its gates at some point or other - often several times due to breaches of the notorious apartheid Pass Laws, as well as being held on more serious charges such as terrorism and treason.
The first prison was established on what was then known as Hospital Hill in 1892 to deal with the increasingly large number of criminals who exploited the lawless atmosphere of the Witwatersrand Gold Rush. Following the end of the Anglo Boer War in 1902, the Old Johannesburg Fort reverted back to its original function as a prison, but was designated to house only white prisoners in what were known as No.1 and No.2 prisons. The adjacent No.4 prison was constructed next door to house 'natives'.
Conditions inside Number Four are so awful as to be difficult to desrcibe. Unlike the adjacent Women's Prison that has been substantially renovated, Number Four has deliberately been left in a state of disrepair, but there is a strong sense that it was scarecely more liveable even when it was in operation. The buildings are designed with no regard for the blazing hot summer days and icy cold Highveld nights when temperatures often plummet well below freezing, and the only communal area to speak of is the open yard with a roofed area where prisoners would have had their meals.
The overcrowding must have been terrible, and the prisons were run by gangs, whose control over their fellow inmates was arguably every bit as brutal as that of the wardens. Gang bosses would have taken control of each of the communal dormitaries, and a complex hierarchy evolved, which dictated who slept where (with the most lowly ranked 'sardines' being allocated spots adjacent to the stinking communal toilet). The living arrangements are stunningly depicted with the highly original use of 'blanket art' - as depicted above - a unique artform that eveolved within the prisons where inmates had access to virtually no other recreational resources.
My experience of visiting places where appalling things have happened in the past is that the overall impression of horor and degradation is too overwhelming to comprehend, and you tend to focus on the little details. For me, the fact that I recall most vividly from Number Four is that inmates were only allowed a limited amount of water per day, and as a result, they had to choose between drinking the water to avoid dehydration, and using the water to wash their food plate. Unsurprisingly given the choice, washing up was not a priority, and prisoners routinely ate from filthy plates caked with the detritus of months of decaying food scraps. As with the degrading practices at the Women's Prison, apartheid era prisons were as much about undermining the dignity of the inmates as they were about incarcerating them, and in this sadistically twisted priority, the authorities appear to have excelled.
You either love or hate the South African flag, and having not really liked it to start with, I have to confess that it's grown on me. This is apparently the largest beaded flag in South Africa, which is prominently displayed on the wall behind the bench of Constitutional Court judges: if you look closely, you can actually find the names of the women who created the flag embroidered into its margins.
As parents and school kids discovered during the run up to the 2010 World Cup (when schoolkids seemed to spend weeks on end drawing the flags of the participating nations), it's a bugger to draw and even harder to face paint. Vexillologists will tell you - and I can say this with confidence as we have one in the family - it's regularly hung the wrong way around, even from government buildings (the black triangle should go to the left).
Schedule 1 of the Constitution states the following:
"The national flag is rectangular; it is one and a half times as long as it is wide.
1.It is black, gold, green, white, chilli red and blue.
2.It has a green Y-shaped band that is one fifth as wide as the flag. The centre lines of the band start in the top and bottom corners next to the flag post, converge in the centre of the flag, and continue horizontally to the middle of the free edge.
3.The green band is edged, above and below in white, and towards the flag post end, in gold. Each edging is one fifteenth as wide as the flag.
4.The triangle next to the flag post is black.
5.The upper horizontal band is chilli red and the lower horizontal band is blue. These bands are each one third as wide as the flag"
Interestingly, there is no defined symbology associated with the flag, although it does contain the three colours of the ANC flag (black, green and yellow).
If nothing else, it is a darn sight more cheerful than the rather dull orange, white and blue vertical stripes of the old South African flag!
This moving place allows you to appreciate the wonder of the transition of South Africa to democracy. Its history spans Paul Kruger's construction of a fort in 1899, the Anglo-Boer war at the turn of the 20th century, the apartheid years, all the way through to present time, and the strong defence of the progressive South Africa Constitution. Here you can see the places where people like Nelson Mandela and Ghandi were imprisoned, as well as as a complete contrast, the Constitutional Court where the right of gay people to get married was tested and won.
The architecture and art is moving and beautiful, and pays tribute to the suffering and sacrifices that many people made in the apartheid years. The Constitutional Court has been built out of the bricks of part of the old jail (the Awaiting Trial block). 2-hour tours are available and well-worth it. They are included in the entrance price and run at various times during the day.
Cosntitution Hill is the new home of he Constitutional Court. Here is possible to see exhibitions of the struggle against apartheid, and the adoption of the new and progressive constitution. Open daily from 09.00 till 17.00, and the entrance fee is R15.
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