Human Rights Day is a National holiday observed on the 21st of March in honour of the victims of the Sharpeville Massacre, where police officers killed 69 people during an anti pass-law protest. On this day, we are encouraged to reflect on the lives lost, which have enabled us to live freely under our constitution in a democratic society.
In commemoration of this holiday, here are some ideas of historical Johannesburg sites that you can visit with friends and family. These can be done in a single day, but I recommend spreading it out over two days.
My road trip in search of Johannesburg historical sites started on a positive note. We live in a beautiful country that’s rich in history, and to quote one of my favourite poets, “you can’t know where you are going until you know where you have been” Dr Maya Angelou.
Sharpeville is a township located between Vereeniging and Vanderbijlpark. It is also home to a brutal massacre. In 1960, police killed 69 black South Africans during a peaceful protest against pass laws. The demonstration in Sharpeville was organised by the ANC’s breakaway party, the PAC under its leader, Robert Sobukwe. Nation-wide demonstrations were planned for the day. Unfortunately, no one could have predicted the tragic outcome in Sharpeville. Today, one can find the Human Rights Precinct erected at the massacre site to honour the lives lost on that day. Unfortunately, the precinct was closed when we arrived, but I could feel the location’s somberness. A few plaques are found outside the precinct with names of the deceased and a commemorative message. Sharpeville is also the location where former president Nelson Mandela signed the South African Constitution into law in 1996.
Constitution Hill is a historic site in Johannesburg and is home to the highest Court in the land, the Constitutional Court. Old Fort, Number Four and the Women’s Jail are also found here.
Number Four communal cell was often overcrowded and housed political prisoners, including Robert Sobukwe and Albert Luthuli. The cell had no lights, and the men were forced to share a single toilet. The blankets were washed once a year. Number Four was famous for the Numbers gang, which still exist in some South African prisons.
The prison courtyard where prisoners ate is opposite the open toilets. This led to frequent disease outbreak due to the lack of hygiene measures. Isolation cells located nearby would experience frequent flooding due to the slope of the landscape of the prison. Prisoners in isolation would spend 23 hours a day in the 800meter wide cells on a diet of rice and water.
It’s hard to imagine that Constitution Hill is also home to the Constitutional Court. A haunted place where atrocious human rights violations occurred is now the home of our constitution. There is plenty of symbolism in the Courts design, which evokes pride in our country’s history.
At the courts entrance is an 8-meter door on which the 27 Bill of Rights are engraved. There are also beautiful art pieces, including wired sculptures of hanging trees. These sculptures symbolise the notion of “justice under a tree”.
The Constitution Court is in session on Tuesdays, and Thursdays and the public can attend proceedings. Former President Thabo Mbeki opened the Court in 2004.
Some notable judgements handed out from the Constitutional Court include:
- 1995 – The abolishment of capital punishment in South Africa
- 2004 – The right for prisoners to vote
- 2006 – The right for gay and lesbian couples to enter into the institution of marriage
- 2016 – President Jacob Zuma’s verdict to pay back some of the public money used to upgrade his residential home in Nkandla
Mandela House and Vilakazi Street
Vilakazi Street in Soweto is always a hive of activity with local and international visitors. The street is made famous by its two former residents, former president Nelson Mandela and archbishop Desmond Tutu. 8115 Vilakazi street was home to Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The home is a modest four-room house that was refurbished and now operates as a museum. For a fee of R30, you’re transported back in time to the humble home.
Before you hit the road
There is a fee payable at Constitutional Hill. Visit their website or contact them for updated prices of guided and self-guided tours. At the time of publishing this blog, the price was R100 per adult for a guided tour. Safe underground parking is available at the facility. While visiting Constitution Hill, also make sure to visit the Women’s Jail.
Constitution Hill: 011 381 3100
There is a fee payable at Mandela House. The price at the time of publishing this blog was R30 per adult.
Mandela House: 011 936 7754
To avoid disappointment, I recommend contacting the Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct before making your way. The last thing you’d want is to be disappointed like we were. The contact number listed on their site is:
Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct: 016 450 3030
Some additional reading: