The site of an old Boer-built fort and prison, located in Johannesburg
, South Africa
. It held numerous prominent inmates, including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, as well as many hundreds of less well-known unfortunates, both political prisoners as well as regular criminals, under generally appalling conditions.
After the prison was closed, apartheid
abolished and the transition to democracy was on course, the new Constitutional Court began looking for a new home from 1996 and found it here. Redevelopment of the area and construction of a new courthouse were completed in 2004.
Parts of the preserved old prison complex are open to the public and make for a VERY dark-tourism attraction right in the heart of Johannesburg.
More background info:
For the general political-historical background see under apartheid
and especially the Apartheid Museum
The historical kernel of Constitution Hill is the Old Fort, originally build by the Boers under president Paul Kruger, from 1893, and intended as a prison from the start, though it was later also a fortified buttress against the British in the run-up – and during – the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 (cf. St Helena
). After that it became a prison again, now under the British
. Immediately the complex was expanded with the addition of a “Number 4” and “Number 5” block. The Women's Jail was added in 1910. The Awaiting Trial Block in 1928.
An early prisoner later to rise to prominence was Mahatma Gandhi in 1908 (later he became the champion of non-violent resistance and leader of India
's path to independence). But apart from political prisoners, the fort and added prison blocks also incarcerated common criminals. Blacks and whites were always segregated – and also treated very differently.
This became further institutionalized once apartheid
was introduced after the National Party's election victory in 1948. Needless to say, the regime was brutal, as is well illustrated in today's museum exhibitions at the site (see below
). One of the most prominent figures in the anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela, was also imprisoned here briefly, albeit under much more favourable conditions. He was kept separate from the other black prisoners (for fear he might exert his political influence over them), and had a spacious cell in the Old Fort, complete with a desk for working at. He was later moved to Pretoria and then Robben Island
The prison was finally closed in 1983, and after the abolition of apartheid and the transition to full democracy, the site was chosen for the establishment of the new Constitutional Court.
To make space for this, the Awaiting Trial Block was largely demolished. Only the fours staircases were partly retained. Two form large iconic columns, one was integrated into the Constitutional Court, one is just behind the building. Bricks from the demolished structure were reused in the construction too. The other parts, Number 4 prison, the Women's Jail and the Old Fort were converted into museums and collectively the ensemble now runs under the designation Human Rights Precinct. It was opened in 2004.
What there is to see:
A lot! This is a place not to be underestimated. Come with plenty of time
! I recommend going on a “full” two-hour tour
and spending some extra time at leisure on top of that.
Note that there are five separate parts to be visited here. In the centre of the complex, freely accessible, are the remnants of the staircases of the demolished “Awaiting Trial Block”, now rising like columns into the air, with greenish glass tops. You can peek inside a couple of them, but you can't go in. One houses the “Flame of Democracy”, another is incorporated into the newly built Constitutional Court, which is also open to the public. For the rest you need a ticket – see below.
The three remaining parts are the Old Fort
, the former Number 4 prison
, and the Women's Jail
, all visitable independently, but better on a guided tour – see below
When I got there, it was in between tours, so there was some 45 minutes time between purchasing the ticket and the start of the tour to have a bit of a look around the Number 4 prison part independently first, which was good as it turned out that the guided tour only picked out selected items from the various indoor exhibitions.
First of all there's a room just behind the visitor centre where a video is played on a loop that provides some general introductory information about the site and also features testimonies by ex-prisoners.
After that I explored the more photogenic parts of Number 4 to get some good shots before the tour and also investigated a couple of the special exhibitions inside the old buildings, including ones about Gandhi and Mandela, the two icons of human-rights struggles who both spent time in this prison.
Then it was time for the start of the tour. As it turned out it was just four of us, and an American couple were only in for the shorter “Highlights” tour (see below
), so for the rest of the tour it was just the two of us plus the guide – so a private tour really. Super.
The tour started at the Number 4 prison and took us through various cell blocks and past various points of interest, where the guide told us many aspects of imprisonment at this grim place. The ugliness of the food – and its unfair distribution along racial segregation lines – just being one of the unpleasant stories.
Possibly the grossest was the “tausa” treatment of black prisoners. Etymologically the word goes back to “trousers”, but refers to the prison guards' (called “warders” here) humiliating practice of making prisoners strip naked and jump up with their knees drawn high, so as to expose their private parts. Allegedly that was to make sure they weren't hiding anything there (or in their anuses), but even so it was clearly sadistic treatment.
In the middle of the inner courtyard are some latrines – these would have been open back then and right in the middle of where prisoners were taking their “meals”. The sanitary dodginess of this practice and the risk of diseases spreading should be obvious.
In the former cell blocks around the main inner courtyard more exhibition rooms have been set up, including one with displays of instruments of corporal punishment and other means of physical brutality, such as a “beatings rack”, shackles and bludgeons.
Beyond the iconic watchtower-cum-gate at the back we were led to a row of solitary-confinement cells. These are always an especially dark part of any prison and this one is no exception. There are also photos of original cell doors with graffiti on them, some defiant, some desperate.
The tour then left the former Number 4 prison and moved on to the, very current, Constitutional Court
building next door. This partly incorporated more parts of the demolished Awaiting Trial building's staircases, but is essentially a new modern edifice. And it is modern with quite panache, though also includes African traditional elements in its design. The foyer is already an impressive introduction to this. And the side wing to the north is chock-full of various modern sculptures and paintings (some very, very, modernistic indeed). The courtroom is a wide and airy hall, with a sculpted new South-African
flag next to constitutional judges' row of seats at the front and large windows at the top through which people can look in from street level – obviously an intentional element symbolically demonstrating openness and transparency.
After this the tour continued to the old Women's Jail. It doesn't exude the same degree of grimness from the outside compared to the Number 4 prison, but inside the old cell blocks are a pretty sobering sight too. So are the stories of particular inmates that are told here, not just political prisoners, such as Winnie Mandela, but also stories such as that of multi-murderess Daisy de Melker.
Particular women's issues are covered here as well, both in the nature of the offences for which black political female prisoners were sent here (e.g. illegal beer brewing!), but also the dire sanitary conditions (lack of proper sanitary towels, communal baths in ice cold water, etc.).
Some cell blocks have been preserved, recreated, other parts seem to stand empty, and much of the interior looks freshly painted – and in the central hall there's a display of modern paintings that contrast with the dark history of the place in an unexpectedly bright way.
Finally we moved on to the Old Fort, using the front entrance. On the other sign I spotted the Dutch/Afrikaans inscription over the portal “Eeentract makt mact” ('unity creates strength').
The first port of call inside the fort was Nelson Mandela's cell
, in the former hospital tract, where he was held in 1962 prior to the Rivonia trials (see apartheid
and the Apartheid Museum
). At this stage he was obviously a somewhat privileged inmate, in a large cell even equipped with a desk. The cell has been turned into a mini museum of its own, in a way, with plenty of added displays relating to his story. Other cells in this oldest part of the prison complex are naturally much grimmer (see photos
Back outside we proceeded through the driveway connecting to the central space of the complex by the visitor centre and the Flame of Democracy. To get there you pass under a bridge and watchtower flying the South African
flag. The bridge apparently connects two parts of a walking circuit along the crest of the ramparts of the fort … but I didn't go there. Instead our guide led us back into the Constitutional Court suggesting that we take a closer look at the modern artwork, which we happily did.
There's more modern artwork outside too, such as a striking sculpture group of dancing Africans by the eastern driveway into the complex.
All in all
, I found this to be a superbly impressive, educational and illuminating oasis within the cluster of central Johannesburg
's business district. This is easily the most worthwhile site to visit as a dark tourist in the inner city! Highly recommended!
In the heart of Johannesburg
, just north-west of the Hillbrow district and just north-east of Braamfontein.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: very centrally located, and easy to get to by car/taxi; reasonably priced.
To get to Constitution Hill from anywhere within or around Johannesburg
, it is, as usual, best for foreign visitors to get a taxi. Walking in the area around the site is not necessarily safe and thus should be avoided.
At the site first make your way to the Visitor Centre, where all tickets are sold. This is also the starting point for guided tours. You can also visit self-guided, with or without using an app (functioning like an audio-guide I would presume), but to get the most out of the site, a tour with a live guide is recommended. There are two basic types of tour: a “Full” tour that lasts two hours and takes in all parts of the complex and a shorter, one-hour “Highlights” tour. The latter comes in two alternating variants, one taking in the Women's Jail one hour and the Old Fort the other – so you'd have to make a choice. Both cover the Constitutional Court and Number 4 prison complex. I'd still recommend investing in the small mark-up for the full tour, as both the Fort and the Women's Jail shouldn't be missed, really.
In addition the site runs specialist tours on a pre-booked group basis only, such as a three-hour night tour, or a special Mandela-themed tour or the somewhat dodgy-sounding “Time Travel Tour” (in which participants are provided with prisoner uniforms and go through the process of mock registration and a general play-acting treatment as prisoners, men and women separately!).
You can book tickets in advance online and receive a 5% discount. Otherwise just turn up at the Visitor Centre and wait for the next tour to commence. That's what I did and it worked just fine.
Prices: admission for self-guided visit: R50, one-hour highlights tour: R80, two-hour full tour: R100, three-hour night tour: R300. For other programmes enquire with constitutionhill.org.za.
Opening times: daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last highlights tour departs at 4 p.m.); closed only on Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Good Friday.
Time required: the different kinds of guided tour last between one hour and three hours. In addition you may want extra time to look around the various exhibitions independently. In total you could easily spend at least half a day here. But by being selective it's possible to cut that down to just an hour and a half as the absolute minimum.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Geographically the closest other dark site in Johannesburg
is the Workers' Museum
in Newtown a couple of miles south of Constitution Hill (better take a taxi), which covers aspects of racial discrimination and the apartheid
system that is not often covered elsewhere, namely that of the mistreatment and exploitation of male black migrant workers.
For the history of apartheid in general, a visit to the dedicated Apartheid Museum
is of course a must. And since that is halfway en route to Soweto
, this can be conveniently tagged on, including a visit to Mandela's House
in Orlando West.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Parts of the complex of Constitution Hill are themselves not so dark but rather bright, including in particular the Constitutional Court building itself, as well as parts of the historic Dutch fort. Furthermore a few of the general tourist attractions this city has to offer aren't far from here either – see esp. under Workers' Museum
) and Johannesburg
- Constitution Hill 01a - staircase remnants of the Awaiting Trial block
- Constitution Hill 01b - old staircase
- Constitution Hill 02 - near the visitor centre
- Constitution Hill 03 - old Number 4 prison
- Constitution Hill 04 - side wing with extra exhibtions
- Constitution Hill 05 - outdoor exhibits
- Constitution Hill 06 - indoors, with screen
- Constitution Hill 07 - blanket dummies
- Constitution Hill 08 - good question
- Constitution Hill 09 - Gandhi and Mandela
- Constitution Hill 10 - hard-headed Gandhi
- Constitution Hill 11 - inside the special exhibition
- Constitution Hill 12 - latrines
- Constitution Hill 13 - barbed wire
- Constitution Hill 14 - barbed wire behind bars
- Constitution Hill 15 - beating rack
- Constitution Hill 16 - yet more instruments of brutality
- Constitution Hill 17 - exhibition room with yet more audio-visual elements
- Constitution Hill 18 - artefact toilets
- Constitution Hill 19 - watchtower-gate
- Constitution Hill 20 - solitary confinement cell doors
- Constitution Hill 21 - netting
- Constitution Hill 22 - grim outlook
- Constitution Hill 23 - Constitutional Court entrance
- Constitution Hill 24 - foyer with artwork
- Constitution Hill 25 - incorporating one of the Awaiting Trial block staircases
- Constitution Hill 26 - courtroom
- Constitution Hill 27 - windows to look in, representing openness
- Constitution Hill 28 - Women Jail
- Constitution Hill 29 - cell size
- Constitution Hill 30 - central hall of the Women Jail
- Constitution Hill 31 - art in the ex-prison
- Constitution Hill 32 - cell doors
- Constitution Hill 33 - exhibits
- Constitution Hill 34 - women items
- Constitution Hill 35 - improvised sanitary towels
- Constitution Hill 36 - Old Fort
- Constitution Hill 37 - fort entrance
- Constitution Hill 38 - Mandela cell window
- Constitution Hill 39 - Mandela cell interior
- Constitution Hill 40 - much less comfy cell
- Constitution Hill 41 - could hardly get much grimmer
- Constitution Hill 42 - old cell block
- Constitution Hill 43 - not much of a view
- Constitution Hill 44 - upper level
- Constitution Hill 45 - hall
- Constitution Hill 46 - new SA flag flying at the old fort
- Constitution Hill 47 - other remnants of the prison complex, now disused
- Constitution Hill 48 - TV tower in the background
- Constitution Hill 49 - dancing sculptures