The Old Fort Prison complex and the distinctive plaque. It was originally built to house white male prisoners in 1892. Both political activists opposed to apartheid and common criminals were held at the prison, including Nelson Mandela. | African News Agency Archive
The Blue plaque on the rampart tells you just enough to get started. We can blame it on Leander Starr Jameson. His abortive bid to overthrow the South African Republic with an armed column in 1896, led to the then president Paul Kruger telling his military commanders to build a fort around the old Johannesburg jail atop the Braamfontein ridge.

The fort encompassed part of the old Johannesburg jail that had already been host to a wide variety of mining camp oddities, chief among them Joseph Silver who historian Charles van Onselen is convinced was Britain’s Jack the Ripper.

The fort was commissioned just before the Anglo-Boer War, and stood sentinel over the Uitlanders for just under a year before the British forces occupied Joburg on their way up to Pretoria and beyond in May 1900.

The man who took the Boer surrender was Harry “Breaker” Morant, a Briton serving with the Australian army, who would achieve notoriety when the British court-martialled him for war crimes and shot him by firing squad almost two years later.

As you walk past the massive wooden doors, through the tunnel under the huge earthen ramparts from the Hillbrow side, you are faced with a rank of gun ports at head height on each side. You emerge into the fort itself past another two sets of doors. Immediately in front is a building which another plaque tells you was once the headquarters of the Rand Light Infantry, a part-time SANDF unit that still exists and saw service in World War II.

The Old Fort Prison complex and the distinctive plaque. It was originally built to house white male prisoners in 1892. Both political activists opposed to apartheid and common criminals were held at the prison, including Nelson Mandela. | African News Agency Archive


Today, though, it’s home to a range of human rights lobbies and bodies, a fitting re-imagination for the once forbidding precinct’s ominous history. After the fort was handed back to civilian authorities in 1906, it reverted to being a jail, first for ordinary criminals and then the political; from the 1914 and the 1922 strike leaders, then Joe Slovo and Nelson Mandela in the 1950s during the marathon Treason Trial - and for a second time after his arrest in Howick in 1962.

The Fort was a white jail and Mandela was the only black prisoner to be held there, given the awe that the prison authorities held him in - and the danger he posed to other, black, prisoners. His cell is preserved in the precinct. It’s stark and utilitarian albeit larger than the one he spent a lifetime in on Robben Island. It’s positively palatial compared with the room of isolation cells perpendicular to it down a narrow alley. There detainees would have been held in tiny cells with neither natural light nor free-flowing air, just space to lie down and a tiny desk or ledge on the opposite wall.

The Fort is part of Constitution Hill, a precinct dedicated to the preservation not just of South Africa’s past but symbolic of its transition to a democracy that was the wonder of the world only 25 years ago.

Part of the precinct includes the Women’s Jail, on the other side of the fort where many of the Struggle’s luminaires were incarcerated, detained without trial, chief among them Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whose prison memoir 491 Days is a harrowing testimony of her time there.

The Old Fort Prison complex and the distinctive plaque. It was originally built to house white male prisoners in 1892. Both political activists opposed to apartheid and common criminals were held at the prison, including Nelson Mandela. | African News Agency Archive


There’s Number 4, the so-called black prison where Mohandas Gandhi and Robert Sobukwe were held - and even Albert Luthuli, the iconic leader of the ANC before OR Tambo. Completing the precinct is South Africa’s apex court, the Constitutional Court, home to the finest legal minds in the country and a steadfast defender of our rights - built atop what was the Awaiting Trial Block where most of the 1956 Treason Triallists were held during the trial.

The court is unlike any other in the country, light and airy with fantastic acoustics and artwork, it is as welcoming, yet its importance as the last bulwark against despots and opportunists can never be denied nor has it ever been more tested than in the last two years. It is a place for all who seek its succour - South African or not.

Back at the Fort, huge lights for television cameras light up a courtyard in the lee of Hillbrow Tower. Children play excitedly in the shadows as actors prepare for the next lines. They’re filming Lockdown, the acclaimed local TV crime drama.

Art is imitating life - except none of this would have been possible, even less imaginable, before April 1994.

Ritchie is a co-author of A to Z of South African Politics, published by Jacana and launched this week at Old Fort.

The Saturday Star