In all the years I lived in Hillbrow I occasionally would pass the Johannesburg Fort and try to imagine what was inside those ramparts. I never thought that one day I would get a chance to have a look. History does not tell us much about this old building, it was built by Paul Kruger from 1896-1899 to protect the Zuid Afrikanse Republiek (ZAR) from the threat of a British invasion, and to keep watch over the miners flocking to the gold fields of the village (that later became the city of Johannesburg) below. Following the Boer War it incorporated into the jail complex that was built around it, although during the apartheid era only whites were held there. The luckless African male prisoners being held at the “Number Four” jail not too far away. The sloping entrance tunnel was the last view that many prisoners would have of the outside world before being taken into the buildings behind the earthern ramparts.
Compared to Fort Klapperkop and Fort Schanskop in Pretoria the buildings within the ramparts are laid out very differently, but have not lost their military character. Sadly, there was no real access to any of the interior buildings, although I did get to stroll on the ramparts and explore some of tunnels beneath them.
The view in all directions is limited by the buildings that have sprung up on either side of the site, however, if one goes back 110 years, the view would have been very different, and the closeness to the railway lines would have made the transportation of prisoners and supplies more controllable.
Striking mineworkers from the 1922 Rand Revolt were held at the Fort, as were a number of political figures from our past. The whole fort complex was actually a series of jails, including a women’s jail, an awaiting trial jail, the number 4 complex and the physical fort itself. All have now been transformed into the Constitution Hill complex.
The rooms that I explored were all beneath the eastern ramparts. They were entered through a curved tunnel and all had the curved ceilings and claustrophobic feel about them. The literature states that these rooms under the ramparts were used as barracks and storerooms and not for prisoners. I suspect that there were not pleasant places to live in, given the sparse ventilation.
Today the fort does not really dominate the skyline, it is more of a curiously grassed hill that hides its interior from the world. Ironically it also faces onto the Constitutional Court and is a reminder that the constitution needs protection from those who would like to change it to suit their own political agendas. There are no guns here, but the reminder is there in those strange crenelated walls and isolated guard posts.
I need to do more research on this building and its history, because it has seen so much history and is one of the older surviving structures of Johannesburg. The relevant Wikipedia page does not say much about it, and so far I haven’t seen anything really definitive. There is an interesting account of the fort in 1969 at the Artefacts site, but it is a small part of the chain in this area, and in later blog posts I will explore the other buildings around it.
© DRW 2012-2022. Images and links recreated 23/03/2016