Johannesburg has been the scene of much repression, resistance to progress and therefore many epic clashes over the decades. When the head-butting is done, the antagonists often record their deeds in music or literature. But in the case of Constitution Hill, masonry is the chosen medium.
The Constitution Hill precinct lies on the border between Hillbrow, Parktown and Braamfontein. It is today the seat of the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, guaranteeing the freedoms of South African citizens, relative to each other and to the State. In contrast, the first builders to break ground on the site had a more straightforward vision, viz. making sure the State stayed in power while prisoners stayed in prison.
The original structure was erected to house white male prisoners in 1892. The Old Fort was built around this prison on the orders of Paul Kruger (of Krugerrand fame) from 1896 to 1899. This was to protect what he called the South African Republic from the threat of British invasion.
Later, the Old Fort prison was extended to include "native" (black) cells, called Section 4 and Section 5. Finding that women were becoming more like men, in 1907 the State added a women's section, the Women's Gaol. An awaiting-trial block was constructed in the 1920s. Striking white mineworkers were held on the premises in 1907, 1913 and 1922, during the term of Jan Smuts as prime minister. In the apartheid era, the prison complex became a detention centre for political dissidents.
Glancing at the total list of inmates who served time within its walls, is like taking a crash course in South African history. In a kind of poetic justice, the Kruger who had fortified the prison spent time there as a guest of the State, when he and Her Britannic Majesty Victoria quarrelled about who headed that State. Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned there in 1906. Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, Bram Fischer, Albert Luthuli and Robert Sobukwe round out the roll-call of its most famous inmates.
As hinted, not all the women imprisoned in the Women's Gaol were there for being dissidents. One inmate, Daisy de Melker, the last white woman to be hanged in the country, was convicted of poisoning her son, having been unsuccessfully tried for the murder of the two men she married in succession. In 1982, Yvonne Ntonto Mhlauli, a black woman, was arrested and tried for being so bold as to hold hands in public with a white man. She was convicted under the provisions of the Immorality Act, and served her sentence at the Women's Gaol and at Diepkloof Prison.
In this sense, Constitution Hill is a museum about the stupidity of State-sponsored dehumanising ideology. It's a heritage site worth seeing, even the hour-long highlights tour. JT staff, as hardy Johannesburgers, took the two-hour full tour in the company of two kids younger than 17 years, at ZAR52.25 for each and ZAR80.75 per adult.