Former South African President Paul Kruger built Old Fort Prison in 1893. He did this as a way to deal with rising crime in the mining town of Johannesburg.
In 1896 after the Jameson raid by the British military, the prison became a military fort for the British. After much fighting over the fort during the Anglo-Boer War, it fell into British hands in 1900. It became a prison again in 1902.
Old Fort soon became a space for apartheid’s abuse and brutality. It housed political activists and criminals and imposed racist treatment on all prisoners.
Apartheid authorities designed the prison as a harsh form of punishment. It targeted South Africans classified as Black, Coloured, and Indian. It also targeted White South Africans that opposed the apartheid government.
Prisoners lived in unhygienic conditions. They experienced abuse in the form of whippings and solitary confinement. The state designed the prison to chip away at human dignity.
A cold welcome to prison
Prisoners entered Old Fort through a tunnel away from public view. The state transported prisoners in an overloaded truck called a kwela-kwela.
As soon as it entered into the tunnel, the large wooden doors closed. The tunnel would become dark and humid to instill fear into new prisoners.
The tunnel walls had holes in them to hold rifles operated by the correctional officers. If any prisoner tried to escape or cause trouble, guards would shoot the prisoner. Guards considered this as an initiation into prison to instill fear and assert power.
After this initiation, warders would register new prisoners. What you would experience as a new prisoner is a loss of identity and human dignity. The warder would substitute your name with a number. If you were a Black, Coloured or Indian prisoner, warders would refer to you as “sboshwa,” which means “a tied up person.”
After your registration, warders would order you to strip naked. They would send you to the courtyard to undergo a process called tausa. Only Black, Indian, and Coloured prisoners experienced tausa.
Warders would demand that you leap into the air, spin around and open your legs wide while clapping your hands over your head.
In the same moment, you had to make clicking sounds and bend your body forward to expose your rectum to warders for inspection.
Warders used this practice to confiscate any items brought into the prison. They also used it as a form of humiliation.
Number 4 and 5
Prison officials housed White prisoners in the cleaner and spacious Old Fort section. They housed Black, Coloured, and Indian prisoners in Number 4 (for short term prisoners) and Number 5 (for long term prisoners). Apartheid law enforced the segregation of prisoners.
Number 4 and 5 cells were overcrowded and unhygienic. The 28s, 27s, and 26s prison gangs became prominent during this time. These gangs are still in existence to date.
Cells were organised according to hierarchy. Gang bosses slept at the end of the room, furthest away from the communal toilet. They called the area “ematafuleni”. The bosses stole blankets from other prisoners to create comfort for themselves. They also had lieutenants who slept closest to them in the area called “emaphanga.” Lieutenants intimidated other prisoners and ran errands for bosses.
Ordinary prisoners slept in a cramped space called “egubudweni.” They had two sleeping mats and three blankets if the gang bosses didn’t steal these.
White prisoners in Old Fort had spacious cells. They had a mattress and pillow, three blankets, four sheets, two pillowcases, and a bedspread.
Prison officials segregated food according to race. If you were a White prisoner, the kitchen staff would give you cooked beef and pork.
As an Indian or Coloured prisoner, you would receive porridge or boiled vegetables. The meal included loose pieces of meat. Those were the discarded fatty parts from the White prisoners’ meals.
As a Black prisoner, you would receive porridge that looked like congealed plastic. The porridge had boiled mealies and beans mixed into it. You also received phuzamandla to drink, which was a mixture of mealie meal and water.
The prison served phuzamandla to give Black prisoners to give them enough strength for cheap labour. Private companies used them for free to do mining and construction work.
The kitchen staff did not wash the crockery and cutlery that Black, Indian, and Coloured prisoners used. They left them to rust and remain dirty.
As a Black, Coloured, or Indian prisoner, you ate your food in the courtyard in front of open toilets. These toilets often overflowed with raw sewage. Prison officials did this to force prisoners to eat less, resulting in reduced food costs.
Further degrading of dignity
There were less than ten pit toilets for over 2,000 Black, Indian, and Coloured prisoners. As a prisoner, you would have no privacy. Warders would stand at the entrance of the ablution facilities to watch you relieve yourself. The toilets were not well maintained or cleaned, so you would have to squat over raw sewage. The stench was unbearable, to the point that you would think twice before deciding to use the toilet.
As a Black, Indian, and Colored prisoner, you could only shower once a week. A shower was possible if you could get to the front of the long queue. The prison had eight open showers for 2,000 prisoners.
Gang bosses would stand at the entrance of the showers to throw a dish full of soap known as “sop-sop” on your head.
All prisoners had 30 minutes in total to shower. If the bosses felt that you were taking too long to shower, they assaulted you.
Gang bosses would also take first dibs on the showers. They took up the 30-minute showering time, depriving other prisoners of their opportunity.
Isolation cells were the main form of punishment in prison. White prisoners could choose between a dark isolation cell or one that had a light in it.
Black, Coloured, and Indian prisoners had isolation cells they called “emakhulukhuthu.” The word means “deep dark hole.” These isolation cells had one bucket for water and another bucket that served as a toilet.
The light installed inside the cells was never switched off. The purpose of that was to make prisoners lose track of time and lose their sanity.
As a prisoner in isolation, you would spend all day in the cell. You had nothing to do at that time. Warders would leave you in isolation for 30 days, or even a year. Your diet would consist of rice water only.
Whippings were also a common form of punishment. Warders would latch a prisoner onto a flogging frame to whip them in full view of others. They did this to humiliate the prisoner. Public whippings also served the purpose of instilling fear in other prisoners. A doctor was present during the punishments to help warders decide on the number of lashes to give.
Warders used the isolation cell with the burglar bar for torture. Prisoners suffered horrendous injuries, and some lost their lives. The state often lied to families that their loved ones died from natural causes. It would give families this false report after conducting a postmortem.
Who would’ve thought,
That in their lifetime,
In their own country,
They would see a juxtaposition so vile,
The free blue sky above the barbed wire,
With hell on Earth beneath it.
The story of Old Fort to be continued in part two with details about the Women’s Jail. Click here.
Constitution Hill is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm, with the final tour departing from the Visitor Centre at 4 pm. The museum does not open on Good Friday, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
You can buy your ticket at the Visitor Centre upon arrival. However, if you buy your ticket online via Webticket, you’ll receive a 5% discount. Tickets range from R50 ($3) to R300 ($22).
The museum offers a variety of guided tours. I went on the Full Tour, where I visited the Old Fort Prison and the Women’s Jail. For the full list of tours, click here.
The museum’s physical address is 11 Kotze Street, Johannesburg. For details on how to get there, click here.
* images are mine.