Constitution Hill: Painful memories

2010-08-16 13:41

Want to talk forgiveness, racial tolerance, social cohesion and justice? Okay, good – just don’t go on a tour of Constitution Hill. Go somewhere else.

Admittedly, though, the tour guides are good at calming down tempers. And the skill occasionally comes in handy during a tour of this national heritage site.

Built on the site of a former prison complex, the Constitution Hill invokes painful memories of South Africa’s past and brings into sharp perspective the brutality of the apartheid system.

To have the Constitutional Court of a free and democratic South Africa based at the site of this apartheid prison complex seems almost paradoxical, for here you have prejudice and justice under one roof.

The tour guides have a line for it: “We’ve taken the bricks that used to imprison us to build a future for our country, to guard against the possibility of the injustices that happened here recurring.”

But that hardly makes up for the humiliation suffered here by black prisoners, some of whom were common law criminals, but many more of whom were political prisoners.

The crimes committed by inmates at this complex varied from shoplifting to one being a member of a banned political organisation, such as the ANC, PAC or the SACP. Some were arrested for not carrying “passes”, others for brewing traditional beer whilst black (a crime during apartheid).

The reasons for the hundreds imprisoned at the Number Four Prison varied, and the variation also extended to the way inmates were treated: if you were black, humiliation and torture awaited you; if you were white, relative luxury.

The intention seems to have been to break the spirit of black resistance to apartheid, but some mavericks within the black anti-apartheid movement upheld their opposition to the system, despite the harsh and unjust punishment.

Robert Sobukwe’s words of resistance are immortalised in the former prison: “We refuse to plead because our contention is that the law under which we are charged is a law made exclusively by the white man, specifically for the oppression of blacks.”

The story of the Number Four Prison, including the discrimination inside, is better told by the former inmates themselves. These include such famous political figures as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Robert Sobukwe, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Helen Joseph and more.

Others, like former inmate Cornelius Manoto, are not well known, but their stories are not less alarming: “To eat from rusted containers was terrible; not to speak of the treatment from warders. Every morning we would stand in the shade feeling cold not even seeing the sunshine. In the court we will be stripped naked and subjected to utter humiliation of the worst order.”

Barbara Hogan, another former inmate, explains the racial preferential treatment: “This cell (in the white section of the Women’s Jail) was like none other I had ever known. A Van Gogh interior, wooden floors, sash windows, three simple beds, a table and chairs. Freezing cold, certainly, but compared to police cells, absolute luxury.”

Those who envisaged the concept of a Constitutional Court at the site of an apartheid prison complex say the project symbolises South Africa’s intricate and painful journey from apartheid to freedom.

The transition was unprecedented in its efficiency, but the wounds are still fresh, and a lamentation by a former inmate betrays the apparent peace that exists between our past and our present.

Writing in a book on the Constitution Hill project, Mapping Memory, former inmate John Moeketsi Mahapa says: “What we fought for all those years has not been achieved. Our people still live in appalling poverty, there are no jobs, people have no houses and worst of all, many of our people are landless.”

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  • Juan - 2010-08-17 10:57

    Note: It's NOT apartheid's fault that zuma and his buddies all drive bmw's while their own people who voted for them still live in poverty. Oh well. You get what you vote for.

  • Diamond Dog - 2010-08-17 12:08

    W T F Juan. Have you absolutely no sense of respect or one inch of moral fibre somewhere in you. Comment correctly on the topic at hand or rightfully be labelled an idiot.

  • Juan @ Diamond Dog - 2010-08-17 13:00

    These people who went to jail had the whole world fooled: They faught for "a better life" for their "people". Fast forward to 2010 you'll see that these 'comrades' now all have high paying government jobs where they do very little exept attend parties and meetings. They are filthy rich from government tenders. And STILL their "people" live in poverty struggling for survival day by day. This is the truth.

  • Diamond Dog - 2010-08-17 20:33

    That, Juan is unfortunately the 'affliction' of being a politician in any if not all government organisms accross the planet. Other countries are not exempt from this type of waste, it is normally just better managed.

    What you conveniently forget is that not all the strugglers ended up in public life, many of them are dead due to the scurge of apartheid. The point; This article does not revolve around the doings of our sordid politicians and the ever increasing myopic ANC of the day. It is merely an article in remembrance of the conditions that lead to the intensification of the struggle. There are a multitude of other topics where you can reply in the manner that you did where it would have been more applicable.

    We don't spit on our enemies graves. It's not on. Show some reverence.

  • mad hatter - 2010-08-19 11:00

    We can all appreciate the abuses that occurred in these prisons and the sacrifices these men made (some even death), we do not however see the memorials to civilian women and children blown to pieces in bomb attacks , we don't see reverence for the brutal murders (most so horrific it makes the mind recoil)which continue to plague our country to the extent of losses reached in war (52 a day , second only to Columbia). The struggle to reconcile comes because it usually comes from a single perpective and therefore without self account and myopic in content. For true reconciliation , both sides of the conflict needs to be acknowldged however unpalitable it might be .

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