Constitution Hill
Constitution Hill


Constitution Hill: essence of SAPrintE-mail
28 April 2004

Constitution Hill 



TOUR of Constitution Hill gave a group of education officials and schoolchildren from all over South Africa a harrowing insight into what it was like to be a prisoner during the dark days of apartheid.

Describing the daily living conditions with the aid of information boards in the prisoners' own words, trained tour guides took the 45 officials and 90 pupils (10 high school children and three officials from each province) through the reconstructed Constitution Hill's prison museums - the Old Fort and Number Four - as well as the new Constitutional Court.

Visitors to Constitution Hill get a guided tour of all prison buildings and exhibitions

Inscribed on the roof of a passage to Number Four prison, a quote from Nelson Mandela's book "Long Walk to Freedom" captures the essence of the tour: "No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails."

Number Four is where thousands of black men were imprisoned, and brutalised. The inside of the prison block has been restored and the buildings look as they did when this was a working prison.

In the food area, where prisoners collected their food from trolleys before moving off to eat in the yard or cells, food drums display the ghastly menu selections prisoners were faced with. African National Congress stalwart Joe Slovo describes the motive for the drums in his unfinished autobiography: "The first drum, marked 'Congress One', contained cooked chunks of beef or pork for white accused. The 'Congress Two' drum, for coloureds and Indian prisoners, contained either porridge or boiled vegetables on top of which floated a few pieces of fatty meat that were most probably from the discarded cut-offs from 'Congress One' drum. The 'Congress Three' drum (for black prisoners) was always meatless and the contents alternated between a plastic-textured porridge and a mixture of boiled mealies and beans."

Eastern toilets were used, and besides the indignity of having to relieve themselves in full view, outbreaks of diseases like enteric fever and typhoid were commonplace. Writer and political prisoner Alex La Guma wrote: "One of the reasons for my disease (typhoid) is found in this jail. Filth. The mats are filthy, the blankets are filthy, the latrines are filthy, the food is filthy, the utensils are filthy, and the convicts' clothes are filthy. The latrines overflow and make a stench.

One of the most dehumanising experiences in the prison was the "tausa", which political prisoner Indres Naidoo describes with shocking vividness: "When performing 'tausa' the naked person would leap in the air, spinning around and opening the legs wide while clapping his hands overhead and then in the same moment coming down, making clicking sounds with the mouth and bending his body forward so as to expose his open rectum to the warders' inspection."

On arrival at Number Four, prisoners were initially denied a shower for three to four months and only after deliberations with prison lawyers were allowed to shower once a week. There were only eight showers for all the prisoners.

Entering the communal cells, the tour group heard a recording of "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika". These overcrowded and badly ventilated cells were a place where people could talk resistance and build courage. Inside the cells, lit by a small window and a fanlight, a screen shows former political prisoners telling of the brutal conditions in detention. "Singing was a way of life here. And sometimes, when we started singing, the whole of Number Four would join us," a former prisoner tells the camera.

Emakhulukhuthu, the "deep dark hole", was reserved for the harshest punishments. These were the isolation cells, where "lunatics, juveniles and those with infectious diseases" were kept. Prisoners here spent 23 hours a day inside, subsisting on a diet of rice water. "They could officially be held here for 30 days but some spent over a year in these cells," states one of the information boards.

Constitutional Court

VISIT the Constitutional Courtwebsite, and read about the current judges, latest judgments and forthcoming hearings.



TO BOOK for the Old Fort Coffee Shop, phone 011 339 2086. Contact Taryn on 011 381 3106 to book any of these venues, or to get a programme of events. No booking is required for the Constitution Hill tours, but if the group consists of 15 people or more, phone Sharon on 011 381 3109 to book.

Ensuring that the visitor's role is not merely one of voyeur, Number Four prison has a response room, which is equipped with modern recording devices which allow visitors to leave messages or record their feelings for those still to come. Here too, visitors can view former prisoners on video returning to the jail, rejoicing in their hard-won freedom.

From Number Four prison the tour groups moved on to the Old Fort. But before entering the second prison, they were shown Constitutional Square, where two stairwells once leading to the awaiting-trial block have been retained. Resistance songs of the 1970s and 1980s play in the background. "Oliver Tambo thetha no Botha a khulule Mandela, Siyaya e Pitoli, Senzeni na?" "Prisoners sang to comfort and entertain each other, to communicate, to maintain solidarity, and to defy the authorities," explains one board.​

At the top of the stairs is a display of women who were held in the prison - many formed the backbone of the liberation struggle, defying the apartheid system by refusing to carry passes or for illegally brewing beer.

The women were particularly vulnerable. An information board quotes political activist Barbara Hogan: "I could hear a doctor screaming at her saying, 'you say your baby is sick, but if you cared about your baby, you would carry a pass'."

The women's prison is still under renovation and will be opened officially on Woman's Day, 9 August.

Then it was on to the Old Fort. The main entrance, looking like a gash in the hill, is a tunnel build beneath the rampart of the fort sometime between 1896 and 1899 by the premier of the then South African Republic, Paul Kruger. Police vans would drop off male prisoners several times a day. "The van would come inside and wait for the door behind to close before the front door could open," explained David Maziba, one of the tour guides. "Very few whites knew what was taking place inside the fort. Some just thought of the fort tunnel as a deep passageway into a mine."

New prisoners were processed in the reception area and given a number, their fingerprints taken and personal details recorded. Prison warders would strip and search them for any items hidden in their bodies. "After the inspection they would be ordered to take off their clothes, hosed down, whether winter or summer, and told to bend forward for a rectal inspection," Maziba said.

Although the Old Fort was solely for white male prisoners, Nelson Mandela was once housed in the hospital section. Via a video screen, Madiba recounts this experience. Mandela shared his cell with another white inmate, whose name he does not remember. "He only had a table and books to enable him to prepare for his case," said the tour guide.

Outside Mandela's cell was Joe Slovo's "Chamber", a toilet that Slovo used to hold legal consultations. A mark notes the spot where inmates and warders alike would queue in order to seek legal advice from him.

One of the main cells in the Old Fort has now been turned into the children's room, to be used as a classroom for the three-hour schools' programme, which involves a tour of the site, interactive projects and pre- and post-site activities.

From the torturous tour of the prisons it was on to the "We, the People" wall - and a dramatic change in atmosphere as the group was faced with the modern Constitutional Court. Walking down the Great African Steps creates a sense of leaving behind the past and moving forward to the present. The steps, built with the bricks of the demolished awaiting-trial block, bridge the looming stone walls of Number Four and the open glass structure of the Constitutional Court. The contrast couldn't be more stark: the legacy of apartheid on the one side and the values of freedom, equality and dignity on the other.

The interior of the Constitutional Court is a blend of African tradition and modern architecture. The foyer is light-filled, lined by slanting columns representing the trees under which African villagers traditionally congregated to discuss matters of social importance with elders.

The interior wall of the court's chamber is built around the remaining stairwells of the awaiting-trial block. A thin transparent glass lines the wall, symbolising the transparency of the court. Eleven black leather chairs range across the front of the court, each bearing the name of a judge, with Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson in the middle. The public seats are at the same level as those of the judges, representing equality. The place where citizens' human rights and dignity were once degraded has been transformed into a custodian house for the rights of the people.

Though some officials were rendered speechless by the experience, Khekani Zondi, a curriculum adviser from KwaZulu-Natal, summed it up thus: "This place captures the essence of South Africa, using material of the past to build the future. While the authorities tried to break the prisoners down, the opposite happened."

Eastern Cape regional co-ordinator Yolisa Ncina said she was glad to be able to experience the freedom that was so hard fought for. "We hope that by this experience, the democracy that people fought for will be treasured and enjoyed by our grandchildren," she said.​

The Old Fort coffee shop
The Women's Jail was built in 1910
The Women's Jail was built in 1910
Tour guide David Maziba shows visitors the view from the rampart of the Old Fort
Tour guide David Maziba shows visitors the view from the rampart of the Old Fort
Exhibition in the hoarding area of the Women's Jail is being renovated
Exhibition in the hoarding area of the Women's Jail is being renovated