Constitution Hill

20 January 2010

On the day we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. in the US, I spent the morning at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. My visit was apropos in light of the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement: Constitution Hill was formerly a prison, and was home to some of the worst human rights atrocities carried out over decades of South Africa’s segregation policies.

The prison dates back to 1893 and behind its iron jail bars, segregation prevailed: Whites, Coloureds and Asians, Black Africans. This jail was “home” to true criminals – murderers, rapists and thieves – but also to the non-white men and woman who dared protest the restrictions placed on their freedoms to speak and move freely (i.e., having to carry passes labeled as Coloured, Asian and Black).

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned here, twice. So was Winnie Mandela. And so was Gandhi.

My heart was heavy to hear the tour guide’s harrowing stories of bias and abuse: Separate wards for white and non-white men. A separate jail for women, divided into white and non-white sections. Separate types of food and food allowances based on race. Separate types of punishments and privileges. Overcrowding – cells made for 2 holding 4-6. Blankets washed once per year. Showers once per week. Isolation and torture tactics, sleep deprivation, beatings hooked to the wall. Strip. Strike. Shame. Hide.

A journalist photographed a tausa (strip search) from a tall building adjacent to the prison. Upon printing the photo, he was thrown into the very prison he was trying to expose…

The prison was closed in 1983.

Information from museums tends to get stored in a box in my mind labeled “history”, as in distant history, as in “this happened a long, long time ago and will never happen again” history. I almost can’t bear the truth that such dehumanizing policies and behaviors were status quo – even within my lifetime – and that in many parts of the world, human rights abuses are prevalent even now.

There’s redemption in the painful memory of Constitution Hill’s former prison complex, however. South Africa’s Constitutional Court now stands on its grounds. The bricks that were once the backbone of the prison’s Awaiting Trial Block now support the very institution where constitutional rights for ALL of South Africa’s “we the people” are upheld. The grounds have been reclaimed in the name of “dignity, freedom and equality”. The courtroom is encircled by windows representing inward and outward transparency…and so that the  Court Justices can gaze upon the remains of the prison and all of the treacherous history that it represents. May they – and we – ensure that this history never repeats itself.

Photos of the day

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3 Responses to “Constitution Hill”

  1. andy wanner Says:

    We the People. Dignity, Freedom, Equality!
    Thanks , Aub

  2. Aunt Cathy Says:

    I think instead of reading a book you should write one..I am in awe of anyone who can write so well. I’m a short and sweet communicator. Love you lots

  3. Mom Says:

    Aub, I am so grateful for the experiences you are able to have at this time in your life. And SO glad for your amazing ability to capture them and convey them so thoroughly and beautifully that it makes me feel as if I’m there, witnessing it with you. I love you enormously!


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