JUser: :_load: Unable to load user with ID: 32

History of the site

In 1893 a high-security prison was built on the Braamfontein ridge in Johannesburg. A few years later, the building of a series of forts around it strengthened the establishment and gave it military capacity. That site became a landmark. It was known in some circles as the Johannesburg Fort and in others as Number Four, the name given to the frightening section in which black men were jailed.

The complex housed three notorious prisons:

  • the Fort, where white inmates were kept;
  • Section Four and Section Five, the "natives' jail", built in 1902; and
  • the women's jail, added in 1909.

Hundreds of thousands of people were jailed there - including famous figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Luthuli. Nelson Mandela paid the Fort a visit first as a young lawyer, then as a prisoner and finally as the president of South Africa.

The prison was closed in 1983, leaving a scar on Johannesburg's metropolis - a bleak reminder of our painful past. It is unusual for a court to be built on the site of a prison, yet the Constitutional Court's judges deliberately chose the Old Fort - for the very reason of its history.

This historically rich site - where densely populated and frenetic Hillbrow meets leafy and affluent Parktown and bureaucratic Braamfontein - is now Constitution Hill, the home of South Africa's highest court.

For more about the Old Fort see the Constitution Hill and Johannesburg Development Agency websites.

The architectural competition

The Constitutional Court's new home was born of a remarkable and uniquely inclusive process - one that resulted in a public building like no other. This structure, South Africa's first major post-apartheid government building, was designed to embody the openness and transparency called for by the Constitution itself.

The Constitutional Court, which was established in 1994, spent its first few years in rented accommodation. An international architectural competition was held in 1997 for the design of the new building.

The brief was to create a building rooted in the South African landscape, physically and culturally, without overemphasising the symbols of any section of the South African population, or making a pastiche of them all. The building was to have a court chamber, public areas, a library, public reading space and rooms for 11 judges, researchers and administrative staff.

The competition - advertised in local and international newspapers, professional journals and on the Internet - drew an overwhelming response: 580 applications were reportedly received, which produced 185 formal entries (including 40 from foreign countries). Submissions, which were anonymous, poured in from 30 countries.

The final result, however, could not have been more gratifying. An international panel of judges - led by Charles Correa, the distinguished Indian architect - chose a South African entry.

The young architects responsible for the winning submission - which was based on the concept of "justice under a tree" - were Janina Masojada and Andrew Makin from Durban, and Paul Wygers from Johannesburg. A partnership between their firms, Urban Solutions and OMM Design Workshop, had come up with a design that was fragmented rather than monolithic and comprised a series of pavilions subtly linked by internal and perimeter pathways and public plazas.

The new building

The Constitutional Court was designed to reflect the values of our new constitutional democracy.

The building is noted for its transparency and entrancing volumes. In contrast to most courts, it is welcoming rather than forbidding, filled with sparkle and warmth. It has no marble cladding or wood panelling, but has come to be admired for its graceful proportions. And the principal materials - timber, concrete, steel, glass and black slate - infuse the court with an African feel.

The foyer of the Court is a spacious, light-filled area punctuated by slanting columns, an architectural metaphor for trees under which African villagers traditionally resolved their legal disputes. On the columns are mosaics - blue, green, orange and red. In keeping with this metaphor, the concrete roof has slots designed to create moving areas akin to dappled sunlight filtering through leaves.

The roof's concrete beams are inscribed with the words ''human dignity, equality and freedom'' in samples of the handwriting of each of the judges incumbent during the building of the court.

The foyer includes a curved wall containing 512 stained-glass windows. The timber door to the foyer, a 9m-high work of art, features plaques carved with words and sign-language symbols conveying the 27 rights enshrined in the Constitution.

The court chamber is more austere and has a low-lying ribbon of glass that emphasises the transparency of its proceedings.

The building has two layers: the outer one consists of the foyer, the court chamber, an auditorium and an exhibition space that opens out on to the Great African Steps. The next layer consists of the administration section, the judges' conference and meeting rooms, and, right in the middle of the building, 14 judges' chambers - 11 for the Constitutional Court judges and three for visiting ones.

The judges' chambers are on three storeys and have open spaces and ponds at ground level. They offer easy access to the court and to the library, in the northern wing of the building.

The foyer opens on to Constitution Square - the precinct's open-air hub. The court chamber itself and Constitution Square have been constructed on the site of the awaiting-trial block, which was built in 1928 and demolished to make way for the Court. The architects have commemorated this important building by keeping four of its central stairwells and by using its bricks in the walls of the chamber.

Running the length of Constitution Square, the "We the People" wall displays the opinions and impressions of visitors to Constitution Hill. Contributors to the wall include former president Nelson Mandela and other ex-prisoners.

The Great African Steps lead from Constitution Square to the ramparts of the Old Fort and Number Four Prison. The steps divide the old stone wall of Number Four and the Court's glass frontage - a walkway between the past and the future.

The three main prison buildings of the Old Fort remain. The court itself is on the east side of the site; there are sports facilities below. In the northwest corner, the defunct Queen Victoria Hospital is already being used as residential space.

Further west, off Constitution Square, is space for a coffee shop, bookshops and a tourist office. Other organisations will find a home here too, such as those bodies established in terms of Chapter 9 of the Constitution to foster our constitutional democracy.

The Court's permanent home was inaugurated by President Thabo Mbeki on Human Rights Day in 2004 - part of the celebration of 10 years of democracy.

Interesting statistics

  • 150 000 - the number of bricks from the old prison buildings used for the construction of the Court and the Great African Steps
  • 28 October 2001 - the date work began on the site
  • 500 - the estimated number of workers on site at the project's peak
  • 95 000 metres squared - the area of the whole Constitution Hill complex
  • R492 million - the cost of the project

Visits and tours

The Court has extended an invitation to the public to explore the history of South Africa's political transition.

Everyone is invited to view the artwork, watch the judges at work in Court or simply soak up the atmosphere of one of the world's most progressive constitutions.

This Visitors’ Brochure provides additional information about the work of the Constitutional Court, as well as about its building and art collection. If you can't get to the Court in person, then take a virtual tour of the building.

Exhibition and tours of Constitution Hill

What people say about the building

"The formation of this new and magnificent structure also gave us the opportunity to encourage and celebrate the creative talent of our people. It provided the time and space for the architects, workers in the plastic arts and landscape gardeners to give free rein to their imagination. And thus it has made the statement that all human beings have a soul, and are miraculous creations that are more than mere law-governed animals"

- President Thabo Mbeki, at the official opening of the Constitution Hill complex on 21 March 2004

"Public buildings normally shut off the outside world. Normally you get swallowed up in the power of the state or corporate entity, but here the building is saying, 'I belong to you, you belong to me' "

- Justice Albie Sachs

"The building design was not about style but a value system enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the response to physical aspects of the site"

- Janina Masojada, one of the principal architects

"The design … has the potential to express a new architecture which is rooted in the South African landscape, both physically and culturally ... more likely to succeed in revealing African trends than a self conscious application of traditional stylistic elements or borrowing from European or historical building precedents"

- the architecture competition's judges, as quoted by Jeff Radebe, the Minister of Public Works, at the announcement of the winning bid

"If we understand the injustices suffered by women in the women's section of the Old Fort Prison, we will understand why the promotion of gender equality is important for our country to move forward. The same applies to the rights of children, the elderly and people with disabilities"

- Mbhazima Shilowa, the premier of Gauteng, on opening the complex with Mbeki

"People are coming from all over the world, but particularly Africa, to learn about our Constitution, so we want to cater for that and for them to observe the operation of our Constitutional Court which, like our Constitution, is an example to the world"

- Paul Wygers, one of the building's architects

"The Constitutional Court building, indeed the entire Constitutional Hill precinct, will also stand as a beacon of light, a symbol of hope and celebration. Transforming a notorious icon of repression into its opposite, it will ease the memories of suffering inflicted in the dark corners, cells and corridors of the Old Fort Prison. Rising from the ashes of that ghastly era, it will shine forth as a pledge for all time that South Africa will never return to that abyss. It will stand as an affirmation that South Africa is indeed a better place
for all"

- Nelson Mandela, the former president, at the ceremony to announce the winner of the competition