Today is Freedom day in South Africa, commemorating 22 years since the first democratic election was held here, marking the official end of institutionalized colonialism and apartheid in the country. This weekend, we got a glimpse at both South Africa’s dark past and bright future at Constitution Hill.
Constitution Hill was originally a military fort built by the Boers and later a notorious prison, where the the apartheid government held the likes of Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. It was also where striking workers and common criminals were sent, along with countless other citizens who committed no crime besides being black. It was divided into separate sections for white, black and women prisoners. The prisons were in use until 1987.
Only the buildings are left of the old prisons, but their architecture speaks of a brutal, inhumane history. Dark, narrow rooms built to hold 30 would be crammed with over 60 prisoners, cramped and sharing a single, open toilet. Outside, uncovered showers tell of degrading treatment by the warders. Solitary confinement cells have rough graffiti etched into their doors and walls, testimony to the horrors their occupants faced.
Now, the somber grounds are also home to South Africa’s constitutional court, built using the bricks of the old prison. The court is strong reminder of the ideals that the new democracy was built on. Panels and doors around the building proclaim the constitutional rights of every South African in all eleven official languages, and an eternal flame for democracy burns.
From the earthen rampart surrounding the fort, it is possible to see both how far Johannesburg has come, and how far it still has to go. The sprawling green suburbs and high-rise office buildings speak to the tremendous economic success Johannesburg has experienced, but the contrasting inner city slums show that the scars of inequality still run deep. Constitution Hill tells an important part of the South African story, a story both tragic and victorious.
On the sunny Saturday when we visited, the victorious side of the story was being celebrated by the thousands of people taking part in the We The People 5k, celebrating their constitution and exercising their rights. Most of them were young, including school groups with children as young as four. Everyone was exuberant as they sang along to the guest band and milled about in their matching t-shirts.
After an event manager heard our accents, we were pulled aside by some cameramen and asked to do an interview. We blundered through it, with the general gist of our remarks being that it was so interesting to learn about what had gone on behind the prison walls and so inspiring to see all these young people out celebrating their constitution.
Around the grounds there were also food and craft stands set up as a special edition of Market @ the Fort, an event usually held on the last Saturday of the month. We tried African nachos and local beer by Stimela Brewing . The nachos were unique, and the beer delicious. After taking in stories of human rights abuses and the darker aspects of human nature, it was refreshing to drink a cool beer in the sunshine surrounded by signs of economic growth, political progression and happy children who get to grow up in a new South Africa.