Hillbrow’s haunted heritage

Joburgers with their ears to the ground will have noticed that, in the last fortnight, the inner city has taken a turn for the better. What a relief to write something positive about a place that has endured such a lambasting over the past decade.

Propaganda aside, it is questionable whether the inner city is actually overcoming the hurdles in its developmental stride, but it’s certainly putting on a positive face. It’s party-time in Joburg, with events like the Standard Bank’s Joy of Jazz and Jazz on the Lake making a killing.

While the world focuses on the summit in Sandton, last week local cultural and historical attention turned to the Johannesburg Fort on the outskirts of Hillbrow. Here the company Clear & Effect Media, part of Johnnic Communications, unveiled the first part of the Heritage, Education and Tourism Project, a tender they won from the Johannesburg Development Agency.

Since the awarding of the tender, just months ago, it has been known that the company has recruited some of the sharpest creative minds around. These have been brought in to conceive of exhibits that reflect on the life of the fort and the role it will play in its position, alongside the Constitutional Court.

Outside the Fort, Kotze Street that leads into Hillbrow is in the process of being paved, and the bunker-like entrance that runs underneath the high rampart surrounding the fort is open for business. The business of free tourism that is.

As one enters the cavernous tunnel one has to zigzag through nine tall grey banners, harbouring the faces

of nationally renowned figures that journeyed through this very portal, on their way to being charged for whatever crime it was considered they had committed. Here are the faces of the thief and murderer Jan Note, or Nongoloza, the passive resister Mahatma Gandhi, the Boer rebel Christiaan de Wet, the murderer Daisy de Melker, the treasonous Nelson Mandela and the ANC’s Winnie Madikizela Mandela.

Outside, in the sunlight, along the northern rampart of the fort is the exhibition called The History of Our Future. This is a walkway of semi-transparent banners with key clauses of the Constitution set against historical images — moments where the new democracy’s founding docu-ment interfaces with real life. Here one finds a blow-up of Bob Gosani’s famous photograph of the ‘tausa dance”, executed before the prisoners’ rectal inspections.

The image provides a clue to the life of the prison. Its inhabitants were always divided along racial lines. While whites have referred to the place as ‘the old fort”, and the black section as ‘the native jail”, Johannesburg’s black citizens have always called it, merely, ‘Number Four”.

Originally built between 1896 and 1899 by president Paul Kruger it provided a lookout over the ‘uitlanders” (foreigners) in the mining village of Johannesburg. During the Anglo-Boer war at the turn of the 20th Century the British took Johannesburg, and imprisoned and executed Boer soldiers in the fort. After the war the place reverted to a prison, operative until the mid-1980s.

Last Saturday afternoon a black tour guide was showing a young white couple a banner of mixed Hillbrow residents celebrating the abandonment of the Group Areas Act sometime in the Nineties. ‘You mean to tell me that Hillbrow wasn’t always a black suburb?” I heard the youngster ask.

Project manager Dhianaraj Chetty is emphatic that the fort is ‘not a theme park. It’s about urban renewal. It’s not cute. It’s not intended to be a history tour, but a new way of experiencing the inner city.

‘The Constitution is the subtext to the whole site, it is the dominant architectural feature and the dominant set of ideas within the site. It is essential that we keep the tension. It was decided to put an institution that protects your freedom next to an institution that takes away your freedom. And we’ve decided to use this juxtaposition as a device.

‘Ultimately, what you’re seeing is not a finished product. It is decrepit and not cute, it is gritty.”

The gravel path of the rampart overlooks the construction site that is the Constitutional Court in the making. Just as the Constitution, and democracy itself, are still in the process of reaching full realisation, so is the site that is being developed.

Project member Nina Cohen, best known for her visionary work on Blank, the Dutch exhibition of 1997 that focused on apartheid and town planning, sums it up: ‘The key thing about the exhibition, when we were designing it, is its flexibility from every point of view. It can be repositioned and it can change. This is its first stand and it should be informed by future research, to show what that research is bringing to the fore.”

Adjoining the Old Fort is the castle-like Women’s Jail. Its entrance opens into a double-volume atrium with prison cells on its second tier, with quaint metal grilles and a roof that opens into a circular skylight.

Instinctively, one has the desire to redecorate it, to make it into a nightclub or even a chic art gallery. Thoughts that are cut short when, on a media tour, one is informed by project member and journalist Mark Gevisser that this is where new female prisoners had their vaginas inspected.

A banner outside the women’s section informs the visitor that the prison was in use from 1903 to 1983. It received as many as 200 prisoners a day. Many arrived with their babies. In what is called the Memory Room, a video shows anti-apartheid activist Sheila Weinberg, imprisoned in 1966, recalling the contradiction between the cruelty that wardens meted out to convicts and the syrupy cuddles they gave to the convict’s babies.

With its regulation grey carpeting, now frayed and dusty, and its wooden-partitioned visiting and interrogation rooms the Women’s Jail screams bad history. In the central court artist Terry Kurgen has installed an exhibition focusing on three women who passed through the prison in different periods of its existence.

Draped from the roof of the women’s jail, wispy banners show scenes from the lives of the executed husband and child killer Daisy de Melker (imprisoned in 1932), pass resister Nomathemba Funani (imprisoned in 1958) and political activist Jeannie Noel (imprisoned in 1976). Three showcases hold a miscellany of their personal effects: Funani’s wedding photograph, Noel’s press clippings and photographic evidence of De Melker’s victims’ hair and bones.

While De Melker’s ghost is said to haunt the Women’s Jail, the ghosts of the thousands of prisoners have provided the project members with their theme for the exhibits themselves.

Kurgen claims she ‘works a lot with photography, history, memory, public and social issues”. She sees the Constitution Hill project as a continuation of the work she has done with the Joubert Park Photographer’s Association and a chronicle of the lives of HIV-positive South Africans for the Barcelona World Aids Conference in July.

‘I feel that the public and social issues that I deal with run through all of the projects I’ve been involved in.

‘The work is very much about what photography means, what photographs signify in the world, about universal experience. There was a phase for two years when I did stuff about maternal subjectivity, how mothers figure in the world.

‘But what we’ve done here does not need to be called fine art. What we’ve tried to do is to give visitors a feel of the lives, the experiences and the things that ran parallel to the women’s experiences of prison.”

By focusing on three women, Kurgen and company have achieved quite clearly what they set out to do. The exhibition provides a highly evocative new form of documentation.

But what of the actual significance of the place? Historian and tourism specialist Elsabe Brink, who was originally commissioned by the South African Heritage and Resource Agency to present a report on the Johannesburg Fort, has this to say: ‘Political activists from before the turn of the century passed through there, like members of the Jameson raid reform committee. Before the 1950s these were mostly white ‘politicals’: strikers, rebels, reformers and those fighting for labour rights. They were anti-establishment.

‘Anti-apartheid prisoners only began going there in the 1950s. For Gandhi the significance is that one of the cornerstones of passive resistance is to court arrest and he had his first jail experience there. De Wet is more significant. The fact that he was jailed there brought about a huge clemency movement where people all over the country collected money to pay his fine.

‘He spent a year in the fort. That money formed the basis of the Helpmekaar fund for the establishment of Saambou and Sanlam.

‘But for Mandela, Sobukwe and Luthuli it was one of the many prisons they were in. In Mandela’s case, in his whole prison life it is like a blip on a computer screen.”

For Johannesburg, it is a blip steeped in meaning.

Johannesburg Fort is open every day except Tuesday, from 9am to 5pm.

For tourism information: Tel: 083 296 1093 or (011) 688 7856.

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Matthew Krouse
Guest Author

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