A Complex and Colored History

We share the horrible actions of what is happening at our borders in cages, the attacks on Ukraine, and irreversible effects of climate change on Facebook, and sit back with our rose colored glasses patting ourselves on the back with a job well done. In reality we are just as stagnant as people were 100 years ago, unsure how to even go about fixing such a mess. I am part of the problem. We are all part of the problem. Humans are flawed. I will leave it there for now.

Trigger warnings: racism, abuse, inhumane treatment, prisons 

Disclaimer: this first post will go into some of South Africa’s history, specifically talking about racism in the South African prison systems.

Although apartheid has ended in South Africa, its legacy is still seen throughout the fabric of the country’s society. There are many steps forward, but just like our own country and others, there are still many strides we need to make. I like to call the trip I experienced the “Disney version,” because we got to see a lot of the amazing things, but didn’t have to see all the problems and realities of where we were. I was only in the country for 10 days and I will never claim to be an expert, especially as someone who will never know what it means to be black. I can just speak to the tours and museums I attended and what I was able to take away. For all of these reasons, we are going to start the South African blogs with Johannesburg and then dive into some of the more light hearted parts of the trip in the next blog posts. 

Let’s start with apartheid, which was a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia) from 1948 to the early 1990s. According to this system of racial classification, white citizens had the highest status, followed by Indians and Coloureds, then Black Africans. Just as Jim Crow laws and racial bias followed suit in America, the economic legacy and social effects of apartheid continue into the present day of South African life. Apartheid legislation was repealed in June of 1991 and multiracial elections were held in April 1994. Obviously there is way more history on apartheid and this is just scratching the surface, but in the interest of not writing a novel here please go look it up.

We only had one day in Johannesburg so we went to Constitutional Hill. Now a museum, the site was a former prison and military fort. The site is currently ​​home to the country’s Constitutional Court, which endorses the rights of all citizens. The precinct had many famous figures serving time including Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Joe Slovo, Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and Fatima Meer. Also the precinct confined tens of thousands of ordinary people during its 100-year history.

During our tour, the main stop was Number Four. In 1902, while the Old Fort was incarcerating white prisoners, additional sections, known as Numbers Four and Five, were created to house black prisoners. Ghandi was housed in Number Four 4 times in his life. Nelson Mandela actually never was sent to Number 4. He was considered an influencer and powers feared that if he saw and reported about the conditions at Number 4 there would be turmoil and upheaval. That is why you will see his prison cell below as a bigger room with a hospital bed. If Nelson died on their watch, it would have been an even bigger problem. Politics never change. 

Nelson Mandela prison cell with hospital bed
The prison kept medical records of Mandela’s health everyday. You can see his blood pressure readings on this calendar.

The sections here held large communal cells that were overcrowded, full of disease, and governed by complicated and omnipresent gangs that still exist in the prison system of South Africa today. There was no light or ventilation in these cells. There would be up to 60 people squeezed into these cells, all sharing one toilet. When it would inevitably clog each day, the prisoners would have to unclog the feces by hand. 

60 people in this one room with no ventilation or light

So how would a prisoner end up in Number Four? One would think only a heinous crime could ever amount to such a terrible fate, yet most of its prisoners did nothing of the sort. During apartheid, Blacks and Coloureds were required to carry passports at all times that restricted them from leaving the township, but basically restricted them from entering a white part of town. If they were found outside the township without the proper documents, they would be arrested and many were sent to Number 4. Lots of times once prisoners finished their sentence, the guards would drop them back off outside their township without papers, just so they could arrest them yet again in a vicious cycle. Some of the passport offenders were never seen again. 

The dining area was located outside next to the toilets. This was to increase disease and decrease appetite among the prisoners. Along with complete inequalities in prison food given based on race, the black prisoners were the only ones fed “Phuza Mandla,” which was an instant energy boost. This was because the black prisoners would go into hard labor and needed energy after being kept in such terrible conditions at Number 4. There were competitions held for prisoners where they would use anything they could find (rocks, toilet paper, blankets) to create art pieces. The guards would choose a winner to receive an extra piece of bread. It seemed strange to have crafting going on in such conditions, but the rationale would be to keep prisoners somewhat sane since it was the only activity available. 

The last part we toured were the isolation cells. Prisoners in these would spend 23 hours inside and only 1 hour outside. They were only given 2 buckets. One with water and one for defecation. Flooding was common in Number 4 and would roll down and fill the isolation cells. Since the flood would pass the toilets, the water filling these cells would be full feces. From the picture you can see the water marks on the door. The death rate was extremely high due to the illness, gang violence, and of course suicide. 

Isolation cells
Water marks on the inside of the isolation cells

The conditions of the facility were so poor and disgusting, that it is hard to even comprehend. Like all moments in history that show humanity at its darkest, it’s important we continue to shine a spotlight on it. Seeing Number 4 reminded me of touring Auschwitz, you cannot fathom how humanity could sink so low. How could a human being watch another human being in this environment? You sit and think to yourself well surely if I was there I would have acted out against it? You think if only the people did something about it? Then you take a look around. History repeats itself and we are living through the same oppressions all over the world and turning a blind and innocent eye. We share the horrible actions of what is happening at our borders in cages, the attacks on Ukraine, and irreversible effects of climate change on Facebook, and sit back with our rose colored glasses patting ourselves on the back with a job well done. In reality we are just as stagnant as people were 100 years ago, unsure how to even go about fixing such a mess. I am part of the problem. We are all part of the problem. Humans are flawed. I will leave it there for now.

The second part of the tour focused on the Constitutional Court. There was also a former women’s prison at the same site, although we did not have the time to tour it. The women’s prison was also divided by race. Now the old prison sits directly across from the Constitutional Court, only divided by what they call the African steps. The steps represent the troubled past of South Africa along with the hopeful future of the country. It is a reminder to anyone in the court of the injustices of the past and looking to make changes. According to the museum website, “The Constitutional Court was inaugurated at Constitution Hill on Human Rights Day, 21 March 2004. Since it was established, the court has passed judgment on several landmark cases, including ruling the death penalty to be unconstitutional and granting the same status, entitlements and responsibilities to same-sex marriages as to heterosexual marriages.”

The inside of the court is full of metaphors all representing a brighter and just future. Here are a few that were pointed out to us, but the website lists out even more. The glass line going through the building is in line with the sidewalk to purposefully only show the passersby legs. This way someone in the court would not be able to tell someone’s race or gender. Anyone from the public is welcome to sit and watch the court. These seats are situated at the same eyeline as the 11 judges to symbolize how no one person is above another. The judges are appointed by the President of South Africa from a list drawn up by the Judicial Service Commission. The judges serve for a term of twelve years and must step down once they reach the age of 65. All really good ideas that I believe America should be taking note of, but that is a rant for another time. The colorful signs outside the court represent the 11 official languages of South Africa. The carvings on the door represent the 27 bill of rights. 

The 11 official languages of South Africa
The 27 bill of rights
Inside the Constitutional Court

Just like the US, South Africa is a young country and there is still such a long way to go, but hope is always filling the air. 

You can learn more about Number 4 and Constitution Hill here: https://www.constitutionhill.org.za/sites/site-constitutional-court

I promise the rest of the blog posts won’t be as serious and dark. Thank you for reading and be ready for even more South Africa posts. 

Until next time please enjoy this wonderful Gandhi quote…


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