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S. Africa inaugurates edifice for top court

$73 million building sits at former site of century-old prison

SHARE S. Africa inaugurates edifice for top court

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — President Thabo Mbeki inaugurated South Africa's new Constitutional Court building Sunday on the grounds of a 100-year-old former prison fortress where Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were detained.

"It is right that the Constitutional Court occupies this building, which represents the conversion of the negative, the hateful energy . . . into a positive hopeful energy for the present and future," Mbeki told whistling and cheering dignitaries, as the court's large wooden doors were opened.

The $73 million edifice on the site of the 100-acre former fort, now renamed Constitution Hill, is billed as South Africa's most ambitious public building project since all-race elections in 1994 ended nearly five decades of racist white-minority rule.

"This is a place of pain but also a place of courage," said Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs, a former anti-apartheid lawyer who lost an arm to a car bomb planted by apartheid security agents in the 1980s.

The 11-judge court is the custodian of South Africa's new constitution, presiding over legal challenges to the nation's basic law.

Using bricks from the grim, century-old fort, workers have erected the court's new home in The Fort verging on the vibrant but crime-ridden inner-city neighborhood of Hillbrow.

Jail window bars have been transformed into latticework for ivy creepers. Some of the original ramparts and rancid-smelling cells in The Fort's former "native prison" section have been transformed into a museum serving as a reminder of injustices perpetrated by the nation's former white-minority and British colonial rulers.

Using convict labor, South Africa's Afrikaners — white settlers of Dutch and French extraction — originally built The Fort in the 1890s to hold white criminals arrested during Johannesburg's unruly gold rush.

By 1899, cannons on The Fort's ramparts were turned against the Afrikaner's English-speaking rivals, whose numbers were growing in Johannesburg.

British troops captured the fort during the Anglo-Boer War in 1900, using it to imprison the future Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi four times between 1908 and 1913 for spearheading a passive resistance campaign against colonial rule.

After the Afrikaner-based National Party took power in 1948, the fort became a notorious holding cell for anyone accused of breaking laws banning blacks from white areas without a special pass.

"If an African man disappeared in Johannesburg" before the prison was closed in 1982, the fort was "the first place his family would look," Sachs said.

A young Nelson Mandela was detained there for several weeks in 1955 after he and other activists of the now ruling African National Congress drafted a "Freedom Charter" demanding equal rights for South Africa's black, Asian and mixed-race majority.

"Our communal cell became a kind of convention for far-flung freedom fighters," Mandela recalled. Mandela was later convicted of treason and spent another 27 years in other prisons.

Other inmates recalled the unsanitary conditions, verbal abuse and other indignities suffered in dank, overcrowded group cells and cramped isolation units.

"We were stripped and physically attacked" by female wardens who conducted invasive strip searches on black women prisoners, said Vesta Smith, 82, who was held without charge for six months in 1976.

Buckets for the prisoners' drinking water and human waste were casually interchanged by the wardens, she said. Black prisoners were forced to sleep on mats on the floor, while white prisoners were allowed beds.

"The memories all rush back," Smith said, as she toured the premises recently.

Now, planners hope Constitution Hill's unique architecture — combining old and new designs — and stunning multimillion dollar (rand) art collection will draw tourists to help revitalize the impoverished inner-city of Johannesburg, South Africa's largest and most cosmopolitan city, Sachs said.