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by Willie Wandrag
Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa
December 5, 2006
From journal Constitutional Court, Johannesburg
January 17, 2005
We paid for a tour and had a guide named David all to ourselves, as it was a public holiday. David took us through the history of the prison with enthusiasm and passion for the topic. We started at the Old Fort entrance and the barrier that is built around the fort, and we were told how the prisoners were treated when they first arrived. We were taken through the old cells and isolation cells and saw taped recordings of past prisoners. The level of degradation experienced, not only from the prison wardens but also from fellow prisoners, left me almost gagging with disgust. The prison had sections for female and male prisoners, and racial segregation was enforced. This was apparent from the different meals prisoners were given—from basic meals to slop resembling that depicted in Schindler's List; sleeping arrangements were based on prisoner 'rank' (newbies were generally used as 'girlfriends'). This part of the tour ended with an opportunity to note your reactions/thoughts, which could be etched into a plate and hung up with others (including Nelson Mandela’s) that line the complex.
We then moved onto the Constitutional Court itself, an astounding feature of the complex. Part of the prison (known as the Awaiting Trial block) was torn down to make room for the court itself. In order to show that the injustices of the past can be a part of the justices for the future, the bricks were reused in the new courthouse. The stairwells to the building have been preserved, and two are even incorporated in the court building itself.
The Constitutional Court is also a building full of symbolism. The logo itself shows people in shelter under a tree talking - representing African tradition of elders assembling to discuss issues. This can also be seen in the lobby of the courthouse, where pillars are askew to represent the tree trunks, natural light comes in through the ceiling, and the lights are formed like leaves. The door into the court itself is a 9m timber door with 27 human rights carved into the wood. There are some astounding pieces of art within the building – a majority symbolic.
It might sound boring to see a prison and a courthouse, but this was an enriching experience. The fact that this place of terror, in downtown Johannesburg, only shut down about 20 years ago is an eye-opener. I think that it was amazing to see how symbolism has been used in building Con Hill to bring the past into the present and hopefully prevent history from repeating itself.
From journal Jo'burg - a Lady with a Rep