Justice Under a Tree

Upon arriving to Johannesburg, I could feel an immediate difference in the atmosphere of the city. While Cape Town felt more California-esque, Johannesburg felt more like the bustling cities of Chicago and New York City back home in the US. Endless mountains were replaced with a skyline filled with towers – although it has nothing on the Chicago Skyline (sorry Jo’burg). Also, we were able to not only see the city itself but also see the historical impact that the apartheid government and anti-apartheid movements had on the city. Our visit to Constitution Hill showed most of those effects.

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Skyline of Johannesburg.

Constitution Hill is a place of great importance as it was a prison from the late 1800s to the late 1980s and was later chosen to be the site of the new Constitutional Court during the 1990’s. This site was chosen because of its history for holding anti-apartheid activists who were awaiting trial and were subjected to the unhygienic, violent, and degrading conditions. Many famous activists had spent time within this prison, including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

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When rebuilding the Constitutional Court, many different aspects of the new South Africa were incorporated. The building itself was built using the bricks and even stairways from the old prison blocks, as a reminder of where they had come from. “Justice under a tree” was used as the theme of the court, as that was where traditional African societies would meet to solve disputes. This theme was seen everywhere within the architecture of the building, and showed the importance of the cultures that were previously minimized by the former government. The new 11 official languages were incorporated into the court by having the name of the constitutional court written in each language on the building as well as the 27 Human Rights carved into the doors of the court in each language, including sign language. The 11 languages were incorporated into the court again by having 11 justices to serve within the Constitutional Court to symbolize each one.

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The Constitutional Court with the seats of the 11 Justices.

Constitution Hill is a melting pot of the past, present and future. It remembers the past of what was suffered during apartheid, the various cultures of South Africans that were seen as subordinate, and shows the bright future that the country seeks out for its citizens. Johannesburg, to me, felt like the first place where the past was really represented in daily life. It may just have been due to the many structures, museums and buildings dedicated to the past, but it helped establish the difference in “character” of the two cities even within those living there.