This Johannesburg Jail Once Held Nelson Mandela. Now It's a Symbol of Hope for the Future.
The prison at Constitution Hill was the "Robben Island of Johannesburg."
Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill is a historic site. Once the site of the notorious Old Fort penitentiary, tens of thousands of prisoners were held there, both men and women from different races, ages, and political agendas during the time of the oppressive apartheid system.
Two of South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Albert Luthuli, were once kept in the prisons at Constitution Hill. As were Mahatma Gandhi, Albertina Sisulu, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
But it has transformed from a place of isolation and incarceration into the home of the Constitutional Court — the highest court in South Africa, which protects the rights of all citizens in the country.
Choosing Constitution Hill as the site of the nation’s most powerful court was a deeply symbolic gesture — an act of reclaiming a place that had previously been so central to the violation of human rights.
The court’s doors were first opened by then-President Nelson Mandela in February 1995, but it wasn’t until 2004 that it finally arrived at its permanent home at Constitution Hill.
“The Old Fort was the Robben Island of Johannesburg,” said then-Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs, who was appointed by Mandela himself. “A new Constitutional Court rising there would dramatise the transformation of South Africa from a racist, authoritarian society to a constitutional democracy.”
“A more South African centre of repression and hope could not have been found,” he added. “Above all, it had history. This wasn’t just a neutral space — this was a space of intense drama, of human emotion, of repression, of resistance. And here was the chance to convert negativity into positivity.”
Global Citizen met Lwando Xaso, a practicing lawyer trustee at the court, to find out why the site still has so much significance.
Xaso describes Constitution Hill as “a space that gives a sense of South Africa’s journey and a sense of the country’s future.”
For Xaso, not only is it a living museum, it also embodies the written South African constitution day to day.
The underlying strength of the constitution is its inclusivity. It’s one of the most inclusive constitutions in the world, and it promotes the idea that every human has the right to equality, freedom, and justice.
“The constitution lives in the space through the social justice organisations that operate here; and the festivals which have a strong constitutional messaging, such as the Human Rights Festival in March, the Basha Uhuru in June, and Afro Punk at the end of the year,” says Xaso. “The site also embodies the constitution in court cases that are brought to the court.”
Provisions of the constitution don’t only benefit South African citizens. Everyone is protected and guided by it, as a constitution that aims to build a united and democratic country that’s able to take its place as a sovereign state in the family nation.
A key part of the South African constitution emphasises the importance of honouring those who have suffered for justice and freedom, and continuing to follow in the footsteps of anti-apartheid activists — such as Nelson Mandela — who lived and suffered for a reconciled, free, and fair democracy.
And since 2012, the Flame of Democracy has burned outside the doors of the court building. It was lit in celebration as South Africa marked the 15th anniversary of its constitution being signed — and it honours the lives of those who fought so hard for democracy in the nation.
It burns bright and constantly, built into one of the stairwells of the old prison complex. In its home between the prison and the court, the flame symbolises the threshold between incarceration and freedom.
But the Flame of Democracy burns strongest when we continue to nurture and protect it — and stand up for our rights as Mandela did.
According to Xaso, Constitution Hill teaches us the lesson of the importance of moving forward, but always without forgetting our history. Instead, she says, we should repurpose history and use it to empower people to continue the fight.
Constitution Hill is also seriously invested in empowerment through education.
Everyone is given the opportunity to visit the space, learn about the rich history of the country, even touch aspects of it, and see the interpretation of it through the minds and hearts of local artists through artworks exhibited at the site.
“Not only do people get the opportunity to visit the highest court in the country, they also get to engage with serious topics that form part of the country’s daily realities,” said Xaso.
In seeing this unique site, and getting to grips with what it stands for, it’s clear that historical sites don’t have to be left as spaces for nostalgia.
Instead they ought to be part of shaping the future, and directing action to protect and preserve what makes the space exceptional — which is the history behind it.
According to Xaso, Constitution Hill is a clear example that change is possible.
The Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 is presented and hosted by The Motsepe Foundation, with major partners House of Mandela, Johnson & Johnson, Cisco, Nedbank, Vodacom, Coca Cola Africa, Big Concerts, BMGF Goalkeepers, Eldridge Industries, and associate partners HP and Microsoft.