Thursday, March 17, 2011

The truth hurts, but silence kills

Last week Michael wrote about Justice Cameron and the Constitutional Court, a keystone of South Africa's democracy.  Several years ago, after a visit to Johannesburg, I wrote a piece about the very same spot where the court is now built, and its gruesome history.  It seems appropriate to remind ourselves in South Africa not only of where we are, and where we want to go, but also of where we came from.  So I'm repeating this piece today in that context.

Johannesburg is built on a series of ridges running east to west.  These hills, or koppies as they are typically called in South Africa, have bare rock at the top. With spring water running over them, these rocks reflected white in the ever-present sunshine of the highveld.  This gave the region its name – the Witwatersrand or the Ridge of White Waters.
In 1886 gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand – not the type of gold that an individual could pan, but rather small amounts of gold embedded in large amounts of hard rock – a few grammes per tonne.  Thousands of people flocked to the area – only 50 kms south of Pretoria, the capital of the country called The South African Republic (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR)) that with various hiccoughs had been independent since 1852.
This influx posed a problem for the ZAR government, which comprised white boers (farmers) who had trekked from the Cape Colony to get away from the hated English.  The blacks in the ZAR had no political rights, of course.  In order to entice more boers to come to the ZAR, the rules for citizenship were very easy – stay a couple of years and you could vote. With the huge rise in foreigners (uitlanders) on the gold mines, the boers realized that they would soon be swamped, so they kept changing the franchise rules to make it nigh impossible for the uitlanders to get the vote.  This was one of the issues the British (through Cecil John Rhodes) used to go to war with the boers.  Rhodes, of course, wanted access to the gold mines.
Outside rampart of The Fort in modern Johannesburg
In 1896 Kruger build a fort on the top of one of the koppies not far from the centre of Johannesburg, partly because he was (rightly) nervous of a British invasion and partly to keep watch over the uitlanders, who were clamouring for the vote.  After the Anglo-Boer War, the fort became a jail.
When I was a kid, my family lived north of the centre of Johannesburg, below the northernmost line of koppies.  We did most of our shopping in the suburbs, and only rarely went “into town”.  The two main reasons for going into town were to enjoy a movie at one of the gorgeous cinemas (the Colosseum, with stars blinking in the ceiling, the Metro, or His Majesty’s) or to go to the dentist – the smiling Dr. Cogan.
The Fort as a jail
The road out of town took us up Hospital Street, passed the Johannesburg General Hospital.  At the top of the hill was The Fort.  All one could see were the earthen walls topped by a rampart and a tunnel through the wall that ended in a huge door.  “If you don’t behave, that’s where you will end up!” my parents would say. We were terrified of The Fort.
I recently visited The Fort.  It is now known as Constitution Hill and is the home of South Africa’s Constitutional Court.  It was a very emotional visit for me because once again I was confronted by the barbarity that the white government had inflicted on those whom it regarded as enemies of the state – in reality anyone whom it wanted to keep out of the way.
The conditions were atrocious.  In the words of one political prisoner – Alex la Guma – “One of the reasons for my disease (Typhoid) is found in this jail.  Filth.  The mats are filthy, the blankets are filthy, the latrines are filthy, the food is filthy, the convicts’ clothes are filthy.  The latrines overflowed and made a stench.”
Naked search
Not only were the conditions awful, but the treatment was also – prisoners stripped naked in public, then searched; beatings; solitary confinement.  And overcrowding.  Cells made to house relatively few had to house large numbers.  This incidentally gave rise to the gang system in South Africa, new inmates being forced to be servants to those higher in hierarchy, who in turn answered to the gang (or cell) bosses.  The photo shows how prisoners were forced to sleep in the overcrowded cells, tightly packed, head to feet.
Folded blankets depicting the sleeping conditions in The Fort

The Fort was home on various occasions to many of those who fought for their freedom:  Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, to name a few, as well as many others unknown to the outside world.
Gandhi quote

I walked around with heavy heart, and often with tears in my eyes - disgusted at how badly people can treat each other. 
But then my mood started to change.
I started to see what had become of The Fort.  Built on the suffering of so many, the area had become the focus of democracy in the country – the home of the highest court of the land, the Constitutional Court.  A place of hope.
Symbolic khotla tree
Part of Constitutional Hill is a museum – a reminder of the horrific past – and part a beacon for the future.  The new court building incorporates parts of the old jail – the stairwells of the Awaiting-Trial section – and is built on the metaphor of a traditional African khotla or gathering of tribal elders, meeting under a tree, to dispense justice.  Inside the building is a stunning art gallery with breathtaking two- and three-dimensional works.  Nearby, in some of the cells is powerful artwork by schoolchildren, looking forward by looking back.
Wood sculpture


Child's poster about the future

The Great African Steps
Running between the old jail and the courthouse are the Great African Steps, built from bricks from the demolished jail buildings.  As I walked down the stairs, the stone wall of the notorious Number 4 Block was on the left and the open glass and light of the Constitutional Court on the right - a walk between the past and the future, between apartheid and freedom.

I eventually left The Fort in a positive frame of mind.  In a couple of hours I had witnessed how low man can go, but also how dignity, pride, and optimism can raise man to unimaginable heights.  I am embarrassed to be a South African of the past but immensely proud to be a South African of the future.  As I walked out, I passed this Truth and Reconciliation Commission poster - and I thought "how apt".  It would serve all institutions to follow its truth.
Truth and Reconciliation poster
Stanley - Thursday


  1. I had forgotten that Gandhi was in South Africa before he returned to India. The oceans of blood and tears that have flowed because of skin color is depressing beyond words.

    My uncle was a Catholic priest who lived in New Orleans of and on for more years than anywhere else. When the adults thought I was in bed, I was listening to the stories of some of his experiences in the very deep south. He had so many experiences that were soul searing.

    Washington, DC was really a southern city and I was with a mixed race group of girls at a restaurant in the mid 1960's. The differences in the way our two racial groups were treated, sitting at the same table, was unforgettable. Of course we left, but it was what the staff wanted us to do so it lost something as a statement. I wanted it to be a bigger deal.

    The night Obama was elected, I had each of my children on line on one of three phones. They all were with friends, in different places, watching the returns. When we knew the result, it got quiet. There were more people crying than cheering because we discovered, that as a nation, we were better than we thought we were.

    I wish my uncle had been alive to have that moment.


  2. We went to see the Apartheid Museum both times we visited Johannesburg. I wish I could have seen the Fort as well, but perhaps it wasn't then what it is now. The Apartheid Museum was a similar experience for me, though I cannot claim South Africa as my country. The story as it unfolds from the brutality of the oppression to the release of end of apartheid to the miracle of Mandela's declaration that there would be no retaliation is one of the greatest stories ever told. When I stood watching that film of President Mandela in the car riding around the stadium to the cheers of the crowd, looking for all the world like an archangel, I wept. Those near me did too, on both my visits. The pillars in the garden display words familiar to any American from a fourth grade civics textbook: "freedom," "democracy," etc. But one says "reconciliation." This is South Africa's great gift and lesson to the world. You should be enormously proud. I only hope the rest of us can hurry up and learn.

  3. You've written one of the best examples of what this blog stands for. Congratulations, Stan!