Have you ever been to Constitution Hill? I was born opposite the road from the hill, at the now-defunct Florence Nightingale Hospital. The site is a treasure trove of history – it used to be a fort, and then a prison, before eventually being converted into a heritage site after the end of Apartheid. It is also the site of the Constitutional Court, our highest and most friendly looking court.
There are still the remnants of a lot of the old buildings, used now for historical tours and other events. The prisoners were moved from the old prison at the hill to Diepkloof Prison (which was nicknamed Sun City because the conditions there were relatively better than the hill), but you can still walk around the buildings of Number 4 and the Women’s Gaol for a feel of the cold and stark conditions of prison life.
The tour guides are great for showing you around the main buildings, except for the court itself which for some reason they don’t really explain. The court is quite a magnificent feat of architecture and art. The location of the court is interesting, set between Braamfontein, Hillbrow and the start of the leafy green suburbs, sitting pretty at the convergence of these vibrantly different areas.
Using some of the bricks from the older buildings that were taken down, the court is meant to be a reminder of the past while also showcasing a better future. The bright red sign near the “ladder of democracy” artwork proclaims ‘a luta continua’, the struggle continues, reminding us that democracy is not a destination but a continuous struggle.
Styled on the idea of justice under a tree, the foyer has an array of beautiful mosaic tiled pillars, all set at odd angles to replicate the slantiness of tree branches, with dappled light pouring in from random skylights, meant to emulate sunlight peeping through the leaves of a tree.
The cow hides at the edge of the judge’s bench, huge beaded flag and exposed brickwork are quite a welcome relief from the other formal, intimidating court rooms you usually see. Judges sit at eye level to the advocates and the public, trying to show that they serve the people and they serve justice, and are not above the law, they are approachable.
But watching a case at this court is quite fun, since the lawyers are hardly given time to go through their written arguments before being peppered with questions from the judges (all 11 of them!). Managing to stand your ground against this remarkable battalion of legal minds is impressive and nerve-wracking.
There are so many cool artworks around the court building, the only drawback being that a lot of them do not have any written explanations, so you either have to have some of your own knowledge about what is being portrayed, or make it up as you go along. Even so, it’s still worth a look, to see how beauty can come from horror and how a historically dreadful place can become the home of so much hope.
I always feel that I try to pack in as many sites as I can when I travel overseas, but when it comes to South Africa, there’s very little that I know about our cool buildings and historical sites. I’ve recently been back to the apartheid museum (which I still find kinda boring) but I’m going to at least try to be more of a tourist in my own home town.
There’s such a nice revitalisation of Braamfontein that’s been happening over the past few years, you can find tons of quirky little coffee shops and the neighbourgoods market is also a good stop. The old town buildings still have some of their glamour, and the new weekend vibe in Braam is nice to take in. So when you have a free morning, and you have no clue what to do, taking a drive through the area may be an idea.
Any other recommendations for places to check out in Jo’burg?