Today was a heavy day. In the morning we visited the Constitutional Court and the Old Fort where prisoners were housed during apartheid and after lunch we visited Apartheid Museum in Gold Reef City. Over the past couple of days we’ve been learning about how law can be an instrument that enables justice and how the Constitution protects different rights, and today was a stark reminder of a time in which the law was used to exclude, punish and oppress non-whites and when there were no protected rights for the majority of South Africa’s people.
Today was my second visit to the Constitutional Court (the first time was an incredible tour that a dear friend set up for us during our wedding week that is still one of my favourite things that I’ve done in Johannesburg thus far) and my first visit to the different jails in the Old Fort Complex. It was difficult to see the different sections of the Old Fort and to see where and how black men were jailed in solitary and group confinement, to see where white prisoners were housed (admittedly, much nicer areas) and to see the Women’s Jail. Though there are some offices in the Women’s Jail for organizations that work for gender justice, by and large the structures of the Old Fort have remained intact.
What made the tour so powerful was that we had a passionate and knowledgeable tour guide who helped us understand a bit of what the Old Fort was like for its prisoners. Whether it was listening to him and to the audio testimonials in the exhibits, or seeing the buildings or reading the displays, all of it was hard, but it was important to learn how white prisoners were treated very differently from black prisoners and the ways in which this differential treatment manifested in the prison system. Some of these ways included floggings for black prisoners and the use of carefully designed tools used to physically punish prisoners, beyond appalling sanitary conditions (for example thirty minutes was allotted for 2000 black prisoners to shower once a week, which effectively meant people could only shower every three or four months despite doing hard labour all day), daily stripping and violation of prisoners, no toilets for those in solitary confinement, latrines located close to where food was served, poor food and no treats (though at Christmas time white prisoners received a pound of pudding each). The cells of the prisoners who were kept in solitary confinement are still there, and we walked inside the cells, closed the doors and thought about how prisoners were left in their cells for twenty-three hours a day, and how solitary confinement could last from fifteen days to up to a year, with prisoners considered dangerous forced to wear chains. On the back of the doors you can see graffiti done by prisoners at the time, and seeing the cells made the injustice of the place even more tangible.
In the Women’s Jail we saw awful conditions as well and were shocked by how tiny the cells were for black women prisoners. We read stories of sexual violence and of women who asked for solitary confinement as respite from assault, heard and read stories of women who miscarried, learnt about how women did not have access to sanitary products and heard stories/saw signs about children that were born in the prison. We learnt that thousands of children were breastfed in prison. By the time we left the prison, I felt as though I couldn’t hear another story, hear of another oppressive act.