- From the Ruins:The Constitution Hill Project
Between the University of the Witwatersrand and the inner-city neighborhood of Hillbrow (the densest square kilometer of urban space in Africa) is a giant building that emerges from rubble and ruins. To watch it rise is to see a city and a democracy heaving itself from the debris, carrying with it the physical markers and the tangible echoes of an iniquitous political system but also of a history stretching back long before apartheid. The building is the new Constitutional Court, and it is being erected on the site of the Old Fort, Johannesburg's notorious prison complex. On this 95,000-square-meter site, the municipal and provincial governments are developing a major urban regeneration project and mixed-use heritage precinct: Constitution Hill. Constitution Hill will house the new court, symbol and guardian of the South African Constitution, one of the most democratic public declarations in the world; it is also being developed as a "campus for human rights" that will house many statutory bodies and nongovernmental organizations whose job it is to protect and interpret the Constitution. Constitution Hill will bear the mantle of this new order—understood, always, within the context of the past. Prominent in the precinct are the three derelict prisons, left mostly to rot since 1983 when they were closed down and the prison was moved to Soweto. Each prison has its own legacies and ghostly presences; each will fulfill separate roles in the new public space being wrought from the heart of the city.
As the court rises, its every shape is etched against the high-rise apartment blocks of Hillbrow, a neighborhood of one hundred thousand people, most of whom are immigrants from other parts of Africa. From the ramparts of the Old [End Page 507] Fort you look down into the neighborhood and see right into its mass of humanity. Church song rises from the neighborhood, mingling with the sounds of children playing in the park directly below. The disparities of Johannesburg, and of South Africa more generally, are immediately evident: in one glance you can take in both the inner city with all its social problems and the leafy green forest of Johannesburg's affluent northern suburbs. The ramparts provide perspective over not only space but also time. On one side of the site are the colonial prisons; on the other side is the maximum-security prison of a later era, doors to the cells now ajar, yellow highveld grass rising in the cracks of the courtyard. The first phase of the five-year Constitution Hill development was completed and opened to the public in March 2004. It is a site in formation, its future uncertain but as full of promise and as vulnerable to implosion as the history of South Africa always has been. It's a city site, reaching far beyond itself. The only way to get to know the site and to fully understand the scale of the project is to walk it.
The text below is the result of a walking conversation that took place in late 2003 between me and Mark Gevisser, content advisor to Constitution Hill's Heritage, Education, and Tourism team. The accompanying images were taken during the course of the walk and were part of the process of making sense of the place in its incarnations of the past, the present, and the future.—S. N.
Sarah Nuttall: Mark, this is an evocative site for any of us who grew up in this city. You can feel its presences as we walk here now, but it was always powerful from the outside too, as we walked and drove past it but didn't quite know what it was. . . .
Mark Gevisser: Like so many kids who grew up in Johannesburg, I remember being driven down Kotze Street and seeing what appeared to be a gash in the landscape, this hole in the hill, and knowing that something bad was on the other side, but, yes, not knowing what it was. It was actually the entry through the ramparts of the Old Fort into the Johannesburg Prison. So the Old Fort and its prisons...