The trouble with history is its dark side. It’s not just that the darkness existed, but that in this life it can never be erased. The darkness will always have been there, in that particular moment in time. It leaves an indelible stain on the story of a nation, and lives on in the shadows that it has left across the lives of so many people. And it is right that it cannot be erased, for human life is far too precious – including, and especially, the lives of those who lived, and died, in that darkness. It might, however, point us towards the light.
Constitution Hill stands in acknowledgement of the darkness and as ‘a beacon of light.’
I walked up the Great African Steps that separate the old from the new, and joined a small group for the guided tour through the Old Johannesburg Fort. This high security prison was officially opened in 1893. Although originally intended for whites it was extended by “Number Four”, the so called ‘Native Prison’ in 1904, and then by the Women’s Prison in 1910. After 1948 the ‘petty apartheid laws’ resulted in a huge increase in the prison population. By 1959 the number of prisoners had climbed to an average of 4000 per day. An outbreak of typhoid forced changes that brought it down to 1500, but by 1964 it was back to 3200. In 1983 all the prisoners were transferred to the new Diepkloof Prison, called ‘Sun City’ because they could now have time in the sun, instead of spending 23 hours a day in the overcrowded cells.
To walk through the complex is to walk through a ‘hell-hole.’ The tales of indignity and abuse, recorded on wall plaques and provided by the guide, are sickening. The prisoners were often treated as less than animals – animals tending to have a value. The over-crowding and conditions were appalling, leading of course to disease. One inmate wrote – “the mats are filthy, the blankets are filthy, the latrines are filthy, the food is filthy, the utensils are filthy, and the convict’s clothes are filthy.” The toilet facilities, solitary confinement and punishment cells were unspeakable.
Standing next to the prison, and towering up into the fresh air, is the new Constitutional Court. Its design is based around the village concept of ‘justice under a tree.’ Here the people traditionally solved their legal disputes – in the open and with nothing to hide. This is reflected in the light-filled foyer and in the Court itself. Approximately 150 000 bricks from the old prison were used in the construction of the Court and the Steps. The specially carved main doors embody the main aspects of the Constitution, under a large and colourful sign in all the official languages. Running off the foyer is an art gallery with work reflecting aspects of the dark years. I was particularly drawn to ‘The Man Who Sang and The Woman Who Stayed Silent’ by Judith Mason. It tells a terrible story which, like so many, includes both the depths and the heights of which people are capable.
I leave you with Madiba. May we work towards, and may God grant, his wish.
“The Constitutional Court building, indeed the entire Constitutional Hill precinct, will also stand as a beacon of light, a symbol of hope and celebration. Transforming a notorious icon of repression into its opposite, it will ease the memories of suffering inflicted in the dark corners, cells and corridors of the Old Fort Prison. Rising from the ashes of that ghastly era, it will shine forth as a pledge for all time that South Africa will never return to that abyss. It will stand as an affirmation that South Africa is indeed a better place for all”
– Nelson Mandela
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