Constitution Hill Dissertation

Caught Between the Past and Future:

Layers of Meaning at Constitution Hill


Constitution Hill is a site of layered history, memory and transformation in the centre of Johannesburg. The location of a prison for nearly a hundred years until 1983 – under Afrikaner Republic, British colonial, and apartheid governments – it has, under the post-apartheid African National Congress (ANC), been transformed into a mixed-use precinct housing prison museums, a public square, library, resource centres, event, exhibition and office spaces, and the new Constitutional Court, symbolising the new democratic South Africa, based on freedom, equality and rule of law. The concept for the precinct centres on building a hopeful future – represented primarily by the new Court building, opened in 2004 – from a difficult past, that of the history of the prisons, “highly symbolic” of, and intended to legitimise, the transition from apartheid (Segal 2006: viii). This ethnography, which aims primarily at comparing the vision for Constitution Hill and its current use patterns, examines “the space between the planned and the providential, the engineered and the ‘lived’, and between official projects of capture and containment and the popular energies which subvert, bypass, supersede and evade them” (Shepherd & Murray 2007: 1). It is a subtly contested scene of societal dynamics which play out in myriad ways, mediated by the attempts at creating a space that exudes meaning, and resulting in a continuum of different lived experiences that relate to the vision for the precinct in complicated ways. These experiences are revealing not only of the extent to which Constitution Hill’s aspirations have been realised, but also of broader processes and themes and the precinct’s place in the city.

The site is comprised of several buildings, old and new. On its eastern edge lies the modestly imposed Constitutional Court: the key generator of new meaning in the precinct, protector of the rights enshrined in the new Constitution, and one of the key symbols of the new dispensation. The buzz surrounding big cases, on days when the country is looking in, punctuates the quiet rhythms of the space that ebb and flow on other days. The significance of siting the Court opposite Number Four, the black male section of the prison, is crucial given its importance in the collective memory of black South Africans in Johannesburg, representing one of the darkest, most powerful symbols of apartheid. The very materiality of this has been used to help create one of the earliest, most important ideological constructs in support of the new order: The Constitutional Court, a symbol of hope rising from the horrors of the past. The extent to which the precinct has realised its vision, itself tied to visions for the inner-city and the nation, thus provokes some demanding questions about how much South Africa has lived up to the promises of the new democracy. One of the key signifiers of nation-building is the construction of public buildings, of which the Constitutional Court was the first of the new dispensation; a true exercise in imagining how the power of different branches of the new government would be projected and performed. Therefore, the success of the precinct’s vision also tells us about the success of the new state in legitimising itself.

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A dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of

Master of Science in African Studies at the University of Oxford