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#KnowYourLand: Constitution Hill was a place of pain

Picture: Facebook

Picture: Facebook

Published Sep 19, 2018

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Eleven Kotze Street, Braamfontein. For years, this address was a place for abuse, neglect and unjust incarcerations.

It was here that diseases spread indiscriminately through the many black people who were subjected to overcrowding and having to deal with poor sanitation following their arrest for both petty crimes and contravening severe apartheid laws.

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For years, Constitution Hill was a place of pain.

However, long before it could house political prisoners and many other black people, Constitution Hill was formerly the site of a fort which was later used as a prison to house white male prisoners in 1892. The Old Fort was built around the prison by Paul Kruger from 1896 to 1899 to protect the country from the threat of British invasion. Later, Boer military leaders of the Anglo-Boer War were imprisoned here by the British.

The Old Fort prison was later extended to include "native" cells, called Section 4 and Section 5, and, in 1907, a women's section was added, the Women's Gaol. An awaiting-trial block was constructed in the 1920s. Both political activists opposed to apartheid and common criminals were held at the prison and striking white mineworkers.

Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Joe Slovo, Bram Fischer, Chief Albert Luthuli and Robert Sobukwe are some of its famous prisoners.

Because of the infamy it gained as a result of holding these political prisoners it was called ''The Robben Island of Johannesburg''.

Other famous struggle heroines such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Albertina Sisulu were also detained there after protesting against pass laws. The Anti-Pass Campaign of 1960 saw additional prisoners incarcerated, and many schoolgoers below the age of 18 were arrested after the student uprisings of 1976.

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Today, however, 11 Kotze Street is a place for hope and the symbol of the immense transformation that has taken place in South Africa. That is because from being a place that sought to punish those that dared fight for their right to be, it is now a place that seeks to restore human dignity.

The highest court in the land, Constitutional Court, opened its doors at Constitution Hill 14 years ago on March 21.

Speaking at the opening of the court, then-president Thabo Mbeki said: “The court represents the conversion of the negative, hateful energy of colonialism, subjugation and oppression into a positive, hopeful energy for the present and the future; a celebration of the creative potential of our people that has given us an architectural jewel. 

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"Constitution Hill also makes the statement that central Johannesburg will continue to grow and thrive, no longer a place of segregation and urban decay, but a leader in our country and continent as the city of the future.”

The following day on March 22, 2004, Constitution Hill opened to the public as a museum focused on heritage, education and tourism.

The Star

* This story forms part of the #HighSchoolsQuiz study material. Click  here for more #HighSchoolsQuiz stories.

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