Wandering through the old ‘Number Four’ prison facilities in Johannesburg’s Old Fort complex on Constitution Hill, I thought of Gil Scott-Heron, the legendary urban poet and musician whose best work articulated the angst and disaffection of many in America in the early 1970s.
A little context here. It was around 1975 when I first heard Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 masterpiece, ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’. This spoken word piece laid over a kind of voodoo jazz groove, was unlike anything I’d ever heard. With its cool, post-bop vibe and provocative political, and often sardonic wordplay, it nailed the zeitgeist. His pointed jabs went straight for the heart, lacerating the fecklessness of politicians as well as the crass absurdity of an increasingly escapist media culture.
Gate at No. Four Prison, Johannesburg
But it was another Gil Scott-Heron classic that came to mind as I walked among the ghosts of Prison Number Four: the song ‘Johannesburg’ , from his 1975 album, ‘From South Africa to South Carolina’. An ironically uptempo tune, it was, to many Americans of a certain age, an introduction to the abomination of apartheid in South Africa.
From 1907 to 1983, the infamous Number Four prison was part of the Old Fort complex in the heart of Johannesburg. It was here that political dissidents like Mahatma Gandhi were held along with countless other black and colored South Africans whose crimes were often little more than brewing their own beer or violating the apartheid era’s ‘pass laws.’ Nelson Mandela spent time here as well, though he was housed in the Old Fort’s hospital prison after rumors of an escape attempt while awaiting his trial for insurrection in 1962.
The Old Fort complex is now a historical site where visitors can view facilities that were once the blunt instruments of apartheid era oppression. I joined a tour with a guide who provided useful background to what we saw.
For instance, here’s how Number Four worked: prisoners were placed in overcrowded communal cells run by cell ‘bosses,’ inmates who set the rules through brutality and terror, always with the tacit approval of the guards who looked the other way. These open cells, about 18 x 15 feet, were often crammed with over a hundred prisoners. When the cell bosses weren’t extracting sex or other tribute from weaker inmates, they forced them to use their hands to clean out the couple of pitifully inadequate ‘squat’ toilets that were usually clogged from overuse.
Isolation Cells, Johannesburg, South Africa
The unofficial brutality inside the communal cells was augmented by the official degradations doled out by the guards at Number Four. One of these was a practice called ‘Tausa’, where naked prisoners were forced to jump in the air, clap their hands and then land with their butts up so the guards could perform anal searches in full view of the other prisoners.
Our last stop was Number Four’s dreaded ‘isolation cells’. These 7 x 2 foot concrete stalls kept prisoners locked up 23 hours a day with one leg chained to an iron ‘O-ring’ cemented into the wall—as if there was any chance for kicking in the 4-inch thick solid wooden doors. Also in the cell were two buckets, one empty and another with murky water to be used for ablutions and drinking.
As I was leaving the site, several busloads of grade-schoolers were arriving to tour the former prison. They were all in school uniforms, bright, eager and well-mannered as they passed me on their way in. They were far too young to have any personal memories of the apartheid era and it occurred to me that, as disturbing as this place was, it offered history through experience; not an experience to dwell on, but one I was betting they’d never forget.