Constitution Hill

Photos: Nina Oosthuizen

Nowhere can the story of South Africa's turbulent past and its extraordinary transition to democracy be told as it is at Constitution Hill.

Constitution Hill Precinct in Braamfontein Johannesburg has a very complex history going back to 1892 when the Old Fort was built under the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek.

Situated on a hill overlooking the bustling Johannesburg city and the fostered suburbs, Constitution Hill provides a unique perspective of Johannesburg and its rich history.

Functioning as a prison, except for the brief period of the South African War (1899-1902) when it was a military defence post, new buildings were added to the site in the late 1900s and early 20th Century.

The so-called Natives' section and isolation cells known as Sections Four and Five where black male prisoners were held, a Women’s Prison (1907), and an Awaiting Trial building (1920s).

All these buildings together were known as the Fort, a place that was notorious for its harsh treatment of prisoners.

Prisoners ranged from common criminals to hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women who contravened colonial and apartheid legislation such as hut tax laws, beer brewing laws, pass laws and the Group Areas act.

Many political prisoners were also incarcerated at the Fort.

Boer military leaders were imprisoned during the South African war 1899-1902. In 1906 and 1913 Indian passive resisters (including Mahatma Gandhi) were incarcerated.

The prison complex of the Fort has impacted deeply on hundreds of thousands of ordinary South Africans lives as it was essentially a transitory prison where prisoners were held until they were sentenced before being transferred to serve their prison terms elsewhere.

The late 19th Century Old Fort was declared a National Monument in 1964 although it continued as a functioning prison until 1987 after which the buildings and the site as a whole, suffered from neglect and vandalism.

The entire site was injected with a new meaning and energy when it was chosen in the mid 1990s as the site for the new Constitutional Court.

The site is home to the Women's Gaol museum, Number Four museum, and Old Fort museum. These areas host gripping exhibitions with themes that showcase South Africa’s rich heritage and advocate human rights.