Constitution Hill, Johannesburg
Nowhere can the story of South Africa’s turbulent past and its extraordinary transition to democracy be told as it is at Constitution Hill. This national heritage site has witnessed a century of South Africa’s history. From rebellious British soldiers who fought with the Boers at the turn of the century, to the youths caught up in the Soweto Uprising, to the dawn of democracy and the building of South Africa’s new Constitutional Court, Constitution Hill has witnessed it all. Visit Constitution Hill and learn about the injustices of South Africa’s past while observing the process by which freedom was won and is now protected. Exhibitions and guided tours have been designed as an interactive experience, offering visitors the opportunity to participate in the building of Constitution Hill.
The Constitutional Court of South Africa is Johannesburg’s newest historical landmark and a unique architectural symbol of South Africa’s democracy. On this site, once the Old Fort Prison Complex, commonly known as Number Four, political prisoners and common criminals awaited trial and sat out their jail sentences. Today, the elegant Constitutional Court presides over this once-reviled place and stands as a proud monument to South Africa’s hard-earned freedom.
The Court extends an invitation to the general public and international visitors to explore the history of South Africa’s political transition. Come and see the splendid and symbolic artwork, sit in the graceful public gallery, watch the 11 justices deliberate the finer details of the Constitution and wander around the largest human rights library in the southern hemisphere. Or simply soak in the atmosphere of one of the world’s most progressive constitutions.
The prison was closed in 1983, leaving a scar on Johannesburg’s metropolis - a bleak reminder of our painful past. The site has now been transformed into a modern, living museum dedicated to human rights. To chart the history of the Old Fort Prison Complex, commonly known as Number Four, is to broadly map the history of resistance in South Africa. For decades, thousands of prisoners streamed through the ''delousing'' chambers of the Prison Complex. They were made to do the humiliating Tauza dance, were beaten and abused in the notorious Number Four prison for black men, held for months in dirty, overcrowded conditions in the Awaiting Trial Block, and stripped of their underclothes and their dignity in the Women’s Jail. From rebellious British soldiers who fought with the Boers at the turn of the century, to striking mineworkers, Defiance Campaigners, Treason Trialists and youths caught up in the Soweto Uprising, to the hordes of ordinary men and women incarcerated daily under the inhumane Pass Laws, the Prison Complex saw it all.
Visit Constitution Hill and experience the unique way that the South African transition has built hope for the future out of the pain of the past. Constitution Hill’s public participation programme, We the People, has begun the long process of inviting ex-prisoners and warders back on to site to participate in research-based workshops. The images, sounds and voices recorded in these workshops have recreated the tenor of prison life, revealing individual stories and experiences that form the basis of the exhibitions and tours. Objects, photographs and memories give a sense of how power and punishment were inflicted on the minds and bodies of prisoners and demonstrate the efforts that men and women made to overcome prison conditions.
Exhibitions are designed as a participatory experience. There are many facilities on Constitution Hill for you to record your own memories and response to the exhibitions. By participating you will set down another layer of history for future generations to discover.
Exhibitions and Tours
The journey to Number Four, the dark heart of Constitution Hill, deepens the visitor’s understanding of what it means to be placed at the bottom of the racial hierarchy and how the apartheid system made criminals of black men.
The Mandela Cell
View a film documenting Mandela’s time at the Old Fort, and his emotional return to Constitution Hill some forty years later. The film is a poignant reminder of one man’s ability to inspire change in the political and moral structure of an entire society.
The Women’s Jail
The grace of this handsome Victorian-style building belies the pain and suffering that occurred within. Currently closed for renovation, the hoarding, which protects the building, has been transformed into a temporary exhibition that honours the contribution of women to the struggle for freedom in South Africa.
We the People Wall
Running the length of Constitution Square, at the base of the Old Fort ramparts, contributors range from Nelson Mandela and other ex-prisoners to ordinary people across South Africa. Leave your message for the We the People wall.
We the People – in the shade of the Constitution
This photographic exhibition is the result of the first We the People road trip that travelled across South Africa’s nine provinces in 2003 from urban areas to isolated rural communities.
Objects from the Past
A collection of prison objects and emblems that sheds light on the system of punishment and incarceration in apartheid South Africa.
Address & Contact Details
Address: Constitutional Court, Johannesburg
Contact: Visitor Services Manager on +27 (0)11 381-3100.
Other Notable Attractions / Activities
The Apartheid Museum is the story of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Beginning in 1948, the white elected National Party government initiated a process which turned over 20 million people into 2nd class citizens, damning them to a life of servitude, humiliation and abuse. Their liberation in ... more information
The Hector Pieterson Memorial and museum opened in Soweto in 2002, not far from the spot where 12 year-old Hector was shot on the 16 June 1976 during the Soweto uprising that today is a symbol of resistance to the brutality of the apartheid government. Soweto, a city developed as a township for black ... more information