Number 4 Jail

This retrospective post deals with my visit to Constitution Hill that I made on 10 March 2012. The first part of my visit was to the “Number 4 Jail” and this post deals with that visit. 

Out of the 4 elements that make up what is now known as “Constitution Hill” I can only profess to knowing about one of them, namely Johannesburg Fort (the other three are: The Women’s Jail, Constitutional Court and Number 4 Jail). I had no idea that there was a place like Number 4 Jail, or the Women’s Jail in walking distance of my flat in Hillbrow. Even all those years ago when we used to traipse up to the Children’s Hospital I had no idea what was behind those walls.  My knowledge about these things really started on the day I visited Constitution Hill. 

Like everything else in South Africa strict segregation was commonplace and it was also the law. it extended especially towards those who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. The apartheid police force were very strict and really enforced the draconian “Pass Laws”, “Group Area’s Act” and any other number of petty legislation designed to make the lives of Africans as difficult as possible. If you were arrested in Johannesburg in the days of this legislation and were an African you probably would have ended up in what is known as “Number 4 Jail”. I do not know what constituted 1-3.

Number Four also called the ”Native Prison’,  was reserved for black men and once housed  Mahatma Gandhi, Robert Sobukwe and the students of the 1976 Soweto uprising.

Let us peek behind the walls of this institution, however, I am relying a lot on memory nearly 5 years after the fact, so details may be sketchy and the images I have were taken then so may not reflect any recent changes. 

I do not recall where we went into this place of punishment, it certainly was not a place of rehabilitation, and definitely not a holiday camp either. Many of those who were incarcerated here were hardened criminals, and some were political activists. Many were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were there to fill a quota. 

And while this place is relatively empty now, way back it would have been full of prisoners and their warders. This was not a pleasant place. We had a guided tour of the facility, and to be frank I was ashamed at some of the things that I heard on that hot Saturday morning. It was about brutality and institutionalised abuse of power and turning a blind eye to human rights.

 A primitive ablution block seems designed for maximum humiliation.

 This “Daily Diet A” was supplied by the minister of prisons in parliament in 1970 (Image opens in a 1024×1042 version).

As can be seen the differences in diet between the races was huge, with Africans getting the short end of the stick. 

If I turned 180 degrees this is what I would have seen. On either side of the passage were the cells that are under the image below.   

These were “Communal Cells” and these were small and dark and grim. Ventilation would have been poor and the overcrowded cell must have seemed like a hellhole. I seem to recall that political prisoners were locked in them. 

 Of course there was no real way to show the reality of what it was like to be locked up in here, but some of the exhibits gave some sort of idea of the cell itself.


Further down there is a row of individual cells, and these were grim places indeed.

There is not a lot of ventilation and with the doors locked this place would soon be very hot in the summer. I believe that no mattresses were provide for prisoners, and I expect a bucket would have been provided as a rudimentary toilet facility. However, everything really depended on the rules and quirks of those on charge.

There is a visitors section with a lot of interesting items on display, and it must have been a hectic place during visiting time. You can bet that the warders had no qualms about taking their share of items brought for the prisoners. At the time I was there they were holding Mahatma Gandhi themed display.

The uniform was similar to that issued to Black prisoners in the early 1900’s.

“The visitor’s area was planned with 3 equal passages; one where the prisoners stood, one where the visitors stood and the middle one where the warder patrolled up and down between the two. Each prisoner was allowed a fifteen to twenty minute visit, and at any one time there were more than 40 people in the room – twenty inmates and 20 visitors. Because the prisoners were separated from the visitors by patrolling warders and 2 passages and 2 layers of wire grill, all prisoners describe the room as unbearably loud and noisy.” (Information board at the visitors centre).

Random Images


And that ended my morning at Number 4 Jail. I do not know if the story of this place has ever been written down, but I am sure those who were incarcerated here see it very differently to those who called the shots. The problem is: who is right and who is wrong? the system allowed institutionalised abuse to happen, and of course there were those in power who got a vicarious thrill out of what they were doing and I am sure they will try to find ways to justify what they did. In the end though, a place like this really brings you face to face with both sides of power.

DRW © 2012-2022. Retrospectively created 06/06/2017, fixed non opening images 13/07/2019  

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