Perched on top of a hill in downtown Johannesburg sits one of South Africa’s strongest beacons of hope: the Constitutional Court. This is where the South African Constitution; the supreme law of the country, admired and respected around the world for its pioneering approach to human rights, is upheld. The preamble reads like a poem:
We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity
This hill has long been associated with oppression, fear and imprisonment. The first prison, the Old Fort, was built in 1892. Throughout the years, people have been detained here not just for actual crimes committed but also as prisoners of conscience; for wanting a free and equal society. In 1906 and 1913 Indian passive resisters (including Mahatma Gandhi) were incarcerated here; as were many of those involved in the 1952 Defiance Campaign; the 1956 Treason Trialists (including Nelson Mandela); and countless people imprisoned after various resistance activities such as Sharpeville (1961), the 1976 uprising and the harsh clampdowns of the mid 1980’s States of Emergency.
The Constitutional Court was built on the site of the prison, even using some of the old bricks and structures in order to both physically and literally change the shadows of the past to new hope of a lighter future. But large parts of the prison have also been left completely unchanged, so that we may never forget the injustices of the past. You can literally feel the fear and despair in the walls as you walk through the notorious Block 4. At the bottom of the complex are the spine-chilling isolation cells where you can still read the scribblings on the inside of the thick metal doors from those detained here.
Constitution Hill is not just a conceptual beacon of hope. Outside the court building stand 3 old Awaiting Trial blocks, where many prisoners were held for long periods of time without even knowing their charges. On top of each block, a giant lantern made with frosted glass has been placed. Just like an eternal flame, these beacons shine their message of hope throughout the nights.
Constitutional Hill will bring out raw emotions in its visitor at the injustices of the past, but it also inspires awe at how South Africa has put this behind her, and provides a soothing feeling of hope for a better future.
Words and Pictures: Katarina Mancama