09 October 2008

Constitution Hill

The complex housing the South African Constitutional Court is set next to and around the old prison, an architectural and political stroke of genius. Part of the site is the Old Fort, where White male prisoners were held, the women's prison for White and non-White female prisoners as well as Number 4, the prison for non-White male prisoners. A lot of effort was made to keep political prisoners apart from 'common criminals', non-Whites from White inmates, men from women, in case they realised that there really wasn't all that much difference between them. The whole complex is quite depressing with the tiny cells and sorry conditions prisoners were subjected to. Male prisoners crowded up to 70 in large rooms designed to sleep 30, sharing two toilets. Women shared tiny shacks between 4 or 6 when they were designed for two. Bedding allowances were different for White and Black prisoners, and they were fed different quality of food.

Many Blacks were arrested for violating the pass laws, which required them to carry a registration book stating their entitlement to be in a certain area at a certain time, to carry out certain jobs and to live in specified areas. Between the 1940's and the 80's more than half of all non-White prisoners were pass offenders, or as one of the displays (under)stated: "Without meaning to, it was quite easy to break the law if you were Black".
A passbook
The only building that was completely knocked down to make way for the new court was the so-called Awaiting Trial Block, which once housed famous prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and Mahathma Ghandi. All that is left is a marked outline on the floor and the four staircases reaching up to the blue sky. One of those has been cleverly incorporated into the back of the court chamber, and the bricks gave been recycled to form the wall of the court and the Great African Steps. The design of the court is based on the traditional African concept of justice under a tree, where the chief would receive complaints and discuss matters of state I'm the village square on the shade of a tree. From the lamps to the carpet pattern to the shape of the windows this design is carried through.

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