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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

12/1: Sadness and Hope at Johannesburg's Constitution Hill

After leaving the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria at 1:30, we had to be on our way again, this time to visit Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, (aka Joburg or Jozi) about 35 miles away. During rush hour, that would be a two hour trip from Pretoria to Joburg but luckily less than half that at other times. The drive felt like we were driving south on I-25 from Denver's northern suburbs into the city but the speed limit was much faster, at 75 mph!
We had visited other sights in Jozi before spending several days in Kruger National Park but had not had time to come to the Hill. Overlooking Joburg's inner city and suburbs, Constitution Hill includes the Constitutional Court as well as the Old Fort Prison Complex known as Number Four. The latter was where thousands of political prisoners were incarcerated including Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, iconic Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi as well as students from the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

Our first stop was at what remained of the Awaiting Trial Block which was torn down to make way for the construction of the new Constitutional Court. The four stairwells were kept as a horrific reminder of the experiences of so many black South Africans. The prison's bricks were incorporated into the Constitutional Court chamber and also in the nearby Visitors Center.
From the Awaiting Trial Block we proceeded to Number Four, 'the dark heart of Constitution Hill, as it deepens the visitor’s understanding of what it means to be placed at the bottom of the racial hierarchy and how the apartheid system made criminals of black men.' One quote I read that resonated with me at the entrance was 'It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. And South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.'
In the courtyard under the shelter, we saw a display of three metal bowls called drums. One of the former prisoners had written that one of his most vivid images was of three drums of prepared food standing outside the prison kitchen before they were brought out in wheelbarrows to the accused.
To prevent any error, each drum was marked by a large piece of paper which floated on top of the food. The first drum was marked Congress One and it invariably contained well cooked chunks of beef or pork destined for the white accused.
The Congress Two drum was for the 'Coloureds' and Indians and it contained either porridge or a mess of boiled vegetables on top of which floated a few pieces of fatty meat that were probably the discards from the Congress One drum. The third drum, containing the least desirable food, was for the black prisoners.

The sign outside the cell blocks said that prisons like Number Four were part of a system of maintaining racial discrimination during the apartheid era. Going to prison was part of everyday life for black people. 
Black South Africans landed in the jail if they were discovered in Joburg without a job or a pass or if they fought for freedom. People whose only crime was that they were black were thrown together with thieves, rapists and killers. In 1960, one in eight of the black population was convicted. This turned innocent people into criminals. Some became political activists in prison.
This was section four and five of the Old Fort Prison Complex, known more commonly as Number Four. The original 'Native Jail' was built in the late 1800s to house troublemakers from the still new mining town of Johannesburg. Later, the fort was strengthened and again used for imprisonment. As South Africa moved toward apartheid, the complex was again expanded to house non-white and female political prisoners and criminals. 
From the beginning, because the prison was so overcrowded, tents often had to be erected in the yards to accommodate new prisoners. In 1953, Number Four had a capacity of 979 but there were 2,027 prisoners. Cells designed to hold 30 prisoners often held up to 60. White prisoners in the Old Fort, however, were usually kept on their own in smaller cells. Prisoners organized themselves into gangs and set up a rigid hierarchy that dictated life in the prison. How the men slept was controlled according to their status in the gang.
Everything in the prison was regulated according to race. Blacks performed manual labor while whites did clerical work. A stark reminder of that discrepancy was this sign:

India's Mahatma Gandhi, second from the left on the top row, was imprisoned at Number Four for more than seven months between 1908 and 1913 for leading the Passive Resistance Movement against pass laws and refusing to carry a pass during his time in Joburg. When Gandhi was first imprisoned, he was simply shoved in with the black prisoners in Number Four much to his surprise. He had expected that he and fellow Indians would be held separately or put in with the white prisoners. His dealing with his own racism had a profound impact on him later in life. 

A bust of Gandhi was at the entrance to a large exhibit on both him and Mandela, Number Four's most famous prisoners.

Gandhi, born in India in 1869, first traveled to South Africa thirty years later to work for two years with the Ambulance Corps during the Anglo-Boer War as he was concerned about the conditions of the Indian stretcher carriers. After returning to his homeland for a year, he opened up a law practice in Joburg in 1903.
While in Joburg, Gandhi adopted the term Satyagraha to describe his non-violence resistant movement because satyar or truth implied love and agraha or firmness was a synonym for force.  

Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi lived in different times and faced different opponents but both men changed the destiny of their  countries' people for the better. Gandhi wrote that 'It was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now.' Mandela said, 'The spirit of Gandhi may well be a key to human survival in the 21st century.'
Mandela had a strong connection with India as a result of his visits there and his emotional attachment with the Indian people. The Gandhian philosophy of non-violence helped shape his own transformation and adoption of the values of peace and reconciliation.
Replicas from the life of Nelson Mandela:
Replicas from the life of Mahatma Gandhi:
Mandela had a history of over 55 years with Constitution Hill, from 1956 to 2011, from his prison cell to his last interactions with the site after the dawn of democracy. 
Gandhi was imprisoned four times in South Africa; the Old Fort was just one of the prisons where he was incarcerated. 
Mandela wrote that 'Difficulties break some men but make others. No ax is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.'
Gandhi wrote that 'an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.'
Another of his famous sayings was 'Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.'
According to Gandhi, 'Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.'

FYI: The following may be upsetting information for some readers.

In the courtyard, we read some very disturbing stories of how the black prisoners were treated. Indres, a political prisoner in 1963, described how, when the prisoners were made to strip in the yard, the warders mocked them for the nakedness they had ordered. 
The next command issued by the warders, according to Indres, was 'Tausa.' That meant the naked man had to leap in the air, spin around and open his legs wide while clapping his hands overhead. In the same moment, he had to come down while making clicking sounds with the mouth and bending his body forward in order to expose his open rectum to the warders' inspection.
Martin, a black prison warder described his shame at the way he was forced to treat the prisoners: 'Some of these people grew up with me and as a warder I did not like to make them open their anus. Sometimes it was an old man in his 50s, a respectable somebody. White warders wouldn't have done it to their own people. But it was a duty that we were forced to do.'
An unidentified prisoner's horrific account: 'To add insult to injury, that unbelievably shameless, most degenerate species of human degradation, the white warders, would actually stand at the entrances to the toilets and watch us squatting over the floor toilet-pails trying to shit the slimes out of our bodies. I could not believe that type of indignity; it was beyond me to comprehend their nonchalance at their own debasement.'

After reading the profoundly disturbing displays in the courtyard, we walked through some of the cells.
Prisoners organized themselves into gangs and set up a rigid hierarchy that dictated life in the prison. The men slept according to their status in the gang.

Prema, a political prisoner at Number Four in 1982, described how, after arriving at the jail, prisoners didn't have a shower for three or four months. 'Because of interaction with our lawyers, tackling the authorities, threatening them with an interdict, they allowed us out to shower. It was cold water, but at least it was a shower. It was quite a relief. Then we were able to shower once a week.'

Blanket Sculptures: Every Sunday, prison officials carried out inspections of the communal cells in Number Four. The blanket sculptures in the cell below - couches, flowers, stools and tanks - were typical of the objects that prisoners made for these Sunday 'parades.' Prisoners with the most creatively decorated cell would win privileges for a week, such as cake or an extra slice of bread each day.

The blanket sculptures were also made by underlings in the cell as a way of pleasing the cell bosses. Blanket couches were offered to them as a form of comfort during the day.
Blankets were also used for recreation - as boards for games with toilet paper markers and lines drawn with soap.
Prisoners also passed time by carving soap with spoons or small pieces of wood from trees. They created paper-mache sculptures by shredding pieces of paper and mixing them with soft sop-sop (blue soap that was mixed with water).
The blanket sculptures and soap carvings were created by two ex-prisoners, Isaac and Vusi, for the exhibit. During the process, the ex-prisoners reflected on the meaning of their decorative creations: 'These things remind us of the world outside the prison walls, the life we left behind and the things we long for.'
The 'deep, dark hole': The most extreme form of punishment was being placed in an isolation cell. Prisoners spent 23 hours a day inside them on a diet of rice water. They could officially only be held there for 30 days but some spent over a year in these cells!
An example of prisoner graffiti still remaining on the back of each cell door:
Even looking into one of the isolation cells from the outside still gave me the willies. The thought of spending any time in one of those would surely drive me around the bend in no time at all, let alone the horror of a month or even longer still.
I could just imagine the sense of utter hopelessness the men experienced hearing the door clang shut before being in almost total darkness for God knows how long.
Punishment: Over the decades, the prison authorities used various means to enforce power and inflict punishment on the prisoners. In
the early 1900s, prisoners who contravened prison rules and regulations received solitary confinement for up to 7 days, up to 25 lashes or hard labor for up to 21 days. In addition, prisoners were ordered to wear leg irons for indefinite periods. Later on, punishments and beatings were more arbitrary and became a constant fixture of prison life. Prisoners had few options to complain if they were assaulted or punished. 

Throughout the years that Number Four was open, the flogging frame below was one of the most extreme forms of punishment, Testimonies described how prisoners were tied to the frame and lashed in the full view of other prisoners. Doctors were obliged to be present at these lashings. Different numbers of lashes were meted out for different crimes. The frame was in operation until the mid-1980s. 
Trying to leave memories of the ghastly treatment meted out to the prisoners behind us, we walked toward the main entrance to the Old Fort.

Although the Fort's main entrance looked like a gash in a hill, it actually included a tunnel that was built beneath the ramparts between at the end of the 19th century. During the South African War, the Old Fort was used as a military garrison. In 1902, when the Fort became a prison again, this was the main entrance for prisoners. Police vans dropped off loads of male prisoners several times daily.
Johannesburg residents imagined the dark tunnel under the hill to be a passageway deep into the earth.
Walking through the gate, there was another part of  the Old Prison Complex at Constitution Hill we still wanted to see, the Women's Gaol or Jail. 
The flower-lined walkway and the grace of the Victorian-style building, built in 1909, negated the pain and suffering we knew had occurred within the jail. 

Isolation Cells: As with the men's prison, isolation was the most extreme form of punishment in the Women's Jail. Sentenced prisoners were often kept here for longer than the three days as ordered by the law. Sadly, some prisoners asked to be kept in the solitary cells to avoid unwelcome sexual attention from their cell bosses.
Nomsa, imprisoned in 1976 and 1977 for not carrying the pass required of blacks and 'coloreds', said the cell 'was dark and there was nothing, just a bucket to wee in. It was a small space to stuff someone in who was just naughty.'
Princess Nomakhosazana, a black warder in 1982, said prisoners received three days in the isolation cells with only rice water after smuggling, fighting, speaking to males, etc. But, since the punishment book was written in Afrikaans, a language the warders din't understand, they didn't know all the punishments.

Another female warder said because the prisoners despised coming to the isolation cells, they fought the warders who resorted to force with the baton if prisoners wouldn't listen.

One of the first things we noticed was that most parts of the Women's Jail had been demolished or vastly altered. The former, large desolate courtyard now included grass. The 'grim bathrooms' and many grill doors had been removed and most of the prison locks and door handles did not survive. That meant we were unable to get any real sense of what life was like for female prisoners in the jail which held black and white women in separate sections.
Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela's first wife and a political activist in her own right, was imprisoned in the Fort for the first time in 1958 when she was pregnant with their first child, a daughter. 'And I was visited by my children 18 years later in 1976 - the very daughter that I had been expecting when I was in that prison for the first time - in pursuit of the very same ideals.
Section One (Cell One): According to the information we read, this large cell held up to 70 black prisoners who slept under filthy, lice-infested blankets on thin grass mats. There were showers and toilets at the back of the cell but they were usually overcrowded and stinking. Though some of the prisoners were there for criminal offenses, the vast majority of inmates were women arrested for pass offenses or illegal occupations such as beer making.
Maggie, a political prisoner in 1959, wrote that 'the lights were kept on for the whole night. The blankets were the brown coarse ones, usually used for racehorses at the stables. No nighties were given to us, so we wore the same overalls day and night until changing day came, which was only when visitors like the inspector was coming.'
Another prisoner, Nolundi, a pass offender in 1980 and many other years, stated that if the prisoners had diarrhea because of 'the rubbish food we were eating, the toilet was right here (in the cell) and there was no toilet paper.' Sarah, a pass offender in 1981, said the prisoners only saw the sun in the afternoon when they fetched their food. 
It was impossible to get a sense of what life had been like for the female prisoners in the cell because it had been totally 'sanitized' for lack of a better word and the former cell was covered with lots of posters. Posters supporting the liberation struggle in South Africa had been produced throughout the world to raise international awareness of apartheid. But in 1978, a group of exiled South Africans living across the border in Botswana, began to print posters for distribution inside South Africa in order to give a voice to the growing struggle of the people 'at home'.
Section Two (Cell Two): This large cell also held 70 prisoners, most of them held for criminal offenses but political prisoners were also kept in the same cells. The wardresses used the long-term prisoners to maintain order in the cell. These cell bosses used their power to demand favors from other prisoners.

Nomsa, a pass offender imprisoned in 1976 and 1977, talked about her experiences in the cell. 'Sis Gugu was a boss. She was fat like a man. She was in control. She would take your food. Sometimes she would tell you to take off her overalls. And then you had to wash it for her. You were her baby. If she didn't like you, you would scrub without soap. Even the matron would say and do nothing.'
Though much of the Women's Gaol dealt with the atrocious treatment the prisoners received, we still had a good sense of how so many of them contributed to the struggle against apartheid.
It was still with a sense of relief, though, that we could escape the Women's Gaol by walking outside and see flowers blooming.

We retraced our steps through the Fort's main entrance to the Constitutional Court located by the Awaiting Trial Block where we had entered a couple of hours previously. The Court was established in 1994 with the birth of South African democracy. 
The Court is the source of many liberal rulings that have confounded the world. It was here that gay marriage was first made legal, way ahead of the Supreme Court in the United States. I was glad to see the Court at the end of our tour of Constitution Hill because I saw it as a sense of the country's hope knowing that so many imprisoned in Number Four and the Women's Gaol had finally won basic human rights and freedom they had long fought for.
The aims of the new constitution were carved on the Court's entrance doors. 

Even though we had only time for whirlwind visits to both the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria and Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg after driving all the way from Kruger National Park early this morning, they had both been extremely rewarding stops. We were, though looking very much forward to our next pit stop in South Africa, amazing Cape Town, where we flew to that evening and would stay for several days.

Posted from Littleton, Colorado on January 25th, 2017.


  1. Its hard to believe that this occurred in our lifetime.

    1. I couldn't agree with you more. It was absolutely chilling to go through Number Four and touring Soweto a week or so previously as they both brought home the horrors of apartheid that I remember vividly reading and hearing about while growing up in Canada.

      Unfortunately, the same could be same of our similar experiences visiting Bosnia, Kosovo and Sarajevo, etc. this past trip and knowing of what transpired there also during our lifetime. I would like to think we as a world would learn from our mistakes and would change the way all people are treated. But history is repeating itself to this day in so many 'trouble spots' and little is being done to correct the horrors perpetrated by some on so many.


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