The Value of Memorial Sites in Democratic States

democracy rights constitution
Tuesday, 29 July, 2014 - 12:09

In this article, the author discusses memorial sites and their potential value to a democratic state such as South Africa 

The Old Fort built seven years after the establishment of Johannesburg is said to be built in the Department of Public Works, Wilhelmine, Z.A.R Architectural style. The Fort was Johannesburg’s main place for incarceration of prisoners for eight decades. Notoriously known as Number Four, the Fort occupied a ‘brooding’ presence in the city, the Fort added a character to the city’s look. It gave it character. Its architectural structure speaking volumes about its use.

As the City of Joburg is being developed as a world class City it carries with it the remnants of the old; buildings such as Constitution Hill are an indelible landmark in the skycrape of the City, as if to say ‘this is our history, we move forward with it’. Constitution Hill has a unique architect that served a specific purpose in the old regime. It is through the monumental sites such as the Number Four, Women’s Gaol and the Old Fort that this site has become to be known as a National Heritage treasure.

Constitution Hill holds a painful history of South Africa. Located between Braamfontein, Parktown and Hillbrow this national heritage site finds itself in the middle of the melting pot of South Africa. Constitution Hill is a juxtaposition of the old and new, the dawn of the past and emergence of the new. It is a compelling contradiction really, with the Constitutional Court just a few meters away from Number Four, a site that held black men, subjected to extreme humiliation and driven to a point of madness through inhuman conditions and solitary confinement.

Today, the structure that is known as Number Four bears witness to atrocities which were carried here. The walls are marked with tons of messages engraved, not all of them are political, and most urge and encourage the struggle against apartheid to be carried on, while some are just simple thuggish, gangster almost. Inside these walls men and women from all walks of life were incarcerated for crimes ranging from brewing beer illegally, prostitution, political activism and other acts which were considered criminal during the Laws of Apartheid.

A walk through the late 19 century structures of Constitution Hills Precinct reveals pockets of sleepy undisturbed realities which call to memory the lone, dry landscapes of old South Africa. Colossal in stature the Ramparts at some points reveal their sepia natural stones interwoven amid golden grass and shuddering old concrete. The silence born from the fortification is amplified in contrast to the often distant muted hollering of city life. All this often brought to life by temporary exhibitions, seminars, festivals and other activities that awaken the soul of the site, with probing question about the past, the future. Young people flood the place in their school uniforms, to learn about their painful history as they walk around the site they are confronted by hope, getting an opportunity to climb up the Ramparts and view the Constitutional Court against this painful background. It is hope for the future.

Here, a place of animated surfaces and myriad tones. One finds a plethora of characteristics etched and flaking from these old edifices; surfaces textured by inmate symbols and sentiments evoke tragic emotions which are heightened by the sadness and angst of context. The old structures seem to shed skin, sheds its past appearance, its intended function for a different paradigm in a transitory state. 

Around the site there are Ramparts forming a crescent. It is said that the Ramparts were built in 1896 to bolster the military defenses of the Kruger government after the Jameson Raid. These high rock walls were needed for surveillance, intimidation or incarceration. With its thick high walls which shine brilliantly in the midday sun, it is often solitary courtyards, vast and angular; confine the human body in a rigid, robust physicality. At this point, that of the urban milieu which could faintly be heard gives way to hard steeled gates and double volumed Atriums of the 120 year old relic. Beyond the courtyards; the lure of the quirky and the period in the details of the interior consolidates the archiac ambience. These walls and heavy steel doors were once kept locked to silence Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Fatima Meer and others incarcerated in the name of ‘swart gevaar’.

The Ramparts are still standing and have been refurbished; through a delicate process to keep the memory of the Ramparts the process was focused on refurbishing these spaces and make them functional while holding onto the memory that they carry. They host a digital exhibition on Mandela and Ghandi. These two prolific icons don the walls and the interactive screens, both as if to say ‘memory has to be activated’.

The Precinct is filled with amazing finds in intimate spaces catapulting the imagination from the present to the old and back to the present again. On a bigger scale; architecturally, ideologically and fundimentally the Constitution Court is in stark contrast to the OldFort, Number Four* and The Woman Gaol* (* other structures on Constitution Hills Precinct). The Court embodies the core values of a free and democratic state, the OldFort and other structures imprisoned lots of people including Mandela, our first democratically-elected President.

Surfaces and textures found on and inside the Constitutional Court reflect the ideals of a cosmopolitan society. The court is colourful (attractive), transparent and accessible; dappled natural light inundates its hallways; the structure and support are punctuated by indigenous Fine Art conscious of its setting.  The OldFort and surrounding structures bare the hallmarks of a paranoid and sadist psyche riddled with prejudice and menacing gunslits.      

Constitution Hill is a site of contradictory epochs, contrasting physicalities, textures and surfaces some of which are flaking off and some restored,nourished and reconfigured. It provides, evokes stories and interpretations central to the struggle of people trying to create a new united identity from the detritus of oppression and inhumanity.
This tumultous physical make-up with its colonial, aparthied and contemporary nuances gives the Constitution Hill visitor an evocative voyage through periods of history, the walls of the structures utter their sentiments through textures we see and the imagery conjured by the flaking of the surfaces. The site at night illuminates the sky as the two towers beam a light onto the sky, as if to confirm its place in the 20 year-old democratic South Africa.

The site was reawakened on 20 June 2014, when over 300 learners descended upon its concrete grounds to engage on a Mandela Ghandi Youth Summit. These young people came together to unpack and locate the values and principles of Ghandi and Mandela within Generation Z. South African learners interacting with their counterparts from India, shared the ideals of Mandela and Ghandi, tracing their journeys.

The site is kept alive with various programmes to promote human rights, constitutional education and democracy. These are necessary programmes to give a platform for citizens to engage on issues pertinent to the development of South Africa.

Contributers: Katlego Lefine and Lebogang Marishane, Both write in their personal capacity

- Lebogang Marishane is a strategic executive assistant and Katlego Lefine is a Fine Artist at Constitution Hill.

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