Constitution Hill represents South Africa’s dark past and its bright post-apartheid future. Johannesburg’s most notorious historic prisons (all of them now museums) sit side by side with the home of the Constitutional Court, a symbol of South Africa’s triumphant democracy. The site is located on the ridge between two city neighbourhoods, Hillbrow and Braamfontein, overlooking central Johannesburg, and is one of the most important tourist attractions in South Africa.
Before Constitutional Hill opened its doors as a museum in 2004, the precinct housed a collection of notorious prisons which included the Old Fort, a high-security prison built in the 1890s to house prisoners of war during the Anglo-Boer Wars (1899-1902), the Number Four prison block, a so-called “Native Prison”, and the Women’s Gaol.
During the apartheid era the prison complex became a detention centre for political dissidents, striking mineworkers, those deemed “anti-establishment” and those who simply violated the inhuman pass laws of the time.
Many ordinary and famous people were incarcerated here during its years as a prison including former president Nelson Mandela and passive resistance leader Mahatma Gandhi, who were both imprisoned for their pro-democracy activism.
The once infamously cruel prison site has now become a symbol of South Africa’s successful struggle for freedom and democracy. The Awaiting Trial Block of the Old Fort made way for the modern Constitutional Court, which works to uphold the rights and dignity of all who live in South Africa. Bricks from the old building were used to build the modern Constitutional Court, which was designed to be an open, transparent and welcoming space. It is possible for anyone to visit the court, the highest in the country, and watch the judges at work. The Constitutional Court also houses an impressive permanent art collection which is well worth visiting.
In the old prison blocks visitors can learn more about South Africa’s difficult path towards freedom and democracy from the extensive permanent museum exhibitions that include personal testimonies from former prisoners and warders and installations. There are also a number of guided tours of the complex which give further insight into the the significance of this heritage landmark and a small cafe called The Hill is open for refreshments once you have finished exploring.
There are one-hour tours at R80 for adults and R40 for learners or two-hour full site tours (10am and 1pm) at R100 for adults and R65 for learners.
The tour schedule is:
Monday to Friday: 9am – 5pm (last tour at 4pm)
Wednesdays: Last tour departs at 1pm
Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays: 9am – 4pm
Closed on Good Friday, Christmas Day and New Year's Day.