Constitution Hill: Brutal and beautiful

South Africa has a dark and brutal history. As with any history, it lingers like a bad odour, the stench of it hitting one full in the face from damp alleys and around corners. 1994 brought with it freedom from those dark days but the scars are deep and, like scars, stories remain. These are scars that will stick for generations. Apartheid and its systematic cruelty and inhumanity cannot (and should not) be forgotten. It should remain at the forefront of our thoughts, a reminder and a warning.

Constitution Hill is a stark and beautifully curated reminder of that brutal history. Perched with its feet in the bustling centre of Johannesburg, this hill has seen and done plenty in its over 100 years of  history.

In 1893, as rogues and entrepreneurs fought over the gold sitting quietly glimmering deep down in the bowels of the city, Paul Kruger commissioned the building of a prison on the hill. First it was a ‘whites only’ prison. In 1899, the fort surrounding it was built as protection against the British, used by the military during the South African War.

In 1904, Number Four opened to accommodate black prisoners and the Women’s Jail was opened in 1910 (also with separate sections for black and white prisoners). There was terrible overcrowding; good people incarcerated purely for being caught without a Pass Book or being political activists were thrown into cells with hardened criminals; gangs formed and conditions were appalling. In 1983, the prison closed and the site was left to decay until 1996, when it was decided that Constitution Hill would be the site of the newly democratic South Africa’s Constitutional Court.

It is possible to visit all sections of the prison on guided tours – we were taken around by the fantastic and incredibly knowledgeable Nolubalalo. Within these walls, scores of anti-Apartheid leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Fatima Meer and Oliver Tambo spent time. The site is incredibly well-curated with boards explaining the cruel circumstances under which the black prisoners were held, including the horrifying rations of food that they were given and the horrifying conditions.

To stand within the walls of one of the cells, blankets rolled up to look like prisoners giving an idea of the hierarchy, is chilling. The walls feel damp and foreboding, the air is still and heavy, and the noise of the living city outside is swallowed up by the still-present sense of foreboding and fear.

The courtyard is open to the sky, a huge blue expanse above concrete growing hot under the midday sun, bars and windowless cells encircling it. The city noise seems to be unable to penetrate even this air and the clang of an iron door closing sends shivers down my spine. It’s loud but, at the same time, it’s eerily silent. Nolubulalo tells us about the conditions, the inmates, the terror and the inhumanity.

We head up to the courtyard in front of the magnificent Constitutional Court, a reminder of now. The air here is clear, the trees throwing dappled shade onto the bricks as preparations for a year-end function happen behind us. There’s music and two of the men putting up the marquee chat and laugh. On the wall, the words ‘Constitutional Court’ watch over this all, written in all eleven official languages.

Inside, the architecture mimics a meeting place under a tree to symbolise where we come from. Elders sitting in a circle beneath a tree have been the major decision-makers and law-keepers throughout African history. The building is scattered with incredible works of art and, something I didn’t realise, the Constitutional Court is open to the public so you can go and watch law as it happens.

Heading out and further up the hill we explored the Fort with its enormous creaking door and the views from the top over Johannesburg. The Women’s Jail is a pretty Victorian building. In design it looks innocuous with lots of light and air, but its looks are deceptive, they hide a history of more cruelty and brutality. It’s difficult to breathe in the solitary cells that were inhabited by incredible, strong women who were incarcerated for months and years purely for fighting for justice.

As you leave out of the back of the Women’s Jail, you are met with an enormous sculpture of a young girl dancing in the sunshine, the huge blue sky above her, Hillbrow Tower peaking over her head. She’s the picture of joy and freedom.

May we never forget and thank you, Con Hill, for keeping that terrible history alive, for telling those important stories and for reminding us of the darkness and terribleness from whence we came.


Wheelchair Accessibility

Con Hill is a hop, skip and a jump from Once in Joburg, where we stayed. The hop,skip and jump requires transport though: it’s steep and bumpy, so we took a quick Uber. Be sure to get dropped at the Visitor Centre, so that you’re on a flat section (or outside the Women’s Jail, if you choose to just do that).

Constitution Hill is on a hill – surprise! – and it’s not a gently sloped, tiny hill: it takes its hill status seriously. However, the whole precinct is incredibly wheelchair accessible, with ramps everywhere and wheelchair lifts where needed. Some of the ramps are steep so you need to be superfit/have a fit person (in takkies, not stilettos or slip slops) to help to push.

If you’re wanting to visit but would prefer not to have to go up/down steep ramps, the Constitutional Court is on a level part, so could easily be navigated. Alternatively, get dropped outside the Women’s Jail and just visit that – it’s relatively flat.

There are accessible bathrooms throughout. And, as at so many wonderful South African sites, the people are wonderful and helpful! Check out their accessibility page.

If you’d like further info, feel free to mail me. I’m happy to answer questions.

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