Johannesburg had only been established for seven years when Paul Kruger, President of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, built the Old Fort prison in 1893. This high security jail, situated on a high ridge north of the town, was intended to intimidate and keep control over the uitlanders (foreigners) in the mining town of Johannesburg. Kruger turned the newly built prison into a military fort after the Jameson Raid of 1896, when mainly English-speaking immigrants conspired with the British to overthrow the Boer government. With the advent of the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) in 1899, the Boer Staatsartillerie (National Artillery) kept a sharp eye on developments from their perch high on Hospital Hill. But when the British took occupation of Johannesburg in May 1900, the Fort was surrendered without a shot and the British army imprisoned Boer soldiers in their own Fort. This marked the beginning of the long history of the Fort as a place of punishment, confinement and abuse of prisoners of all political persuasions. Once the war ended in 1902, the Fort reverted to a prison again, and was Johannesburg’s main place of incarceration of prisoners for eight decades.
Three other prison buildings were built outside the rampart walls of the Old Fort: the Women’s Jail, the Awaiting Trial Block and Sections Four and Five. The prison complex was racially segregated, with white male prisoners being kept in the Old Fort and black prisoners in the other three prisons on site. The Old Fort Prison complex commonly became known as Number Four. The jail always had a brooding presence in the city, especially as the elegant suburb of Hospital Hill grew around it.
Virtually every important political leader in South African history, from Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela and Fatima Meer, as well as scores of ordinary South Africans caught in the web of colonial and apartheid repression, have been imprisoned in these jails. Every person of color risked incarceration for trifle offences, such as not having their identification card with them, to simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, therefore raising the question of who is a criminal. The old stonewalls tell a century’s worth of stories of an iniquitous political system, as brutal penal institution, and the resilience of generations of prisoners.
"We knew Number Four to be a very scary place, like going down a mine. When the police car arrived at the reception, you used to go deep, deep, deep into the earth."
Sipho Sibiya, political prisoner
"My grandmother had taught us to say goodbye when we went to shop in town, because we never knew if we would come back or not. We used to say, 'If you don’t see me, check for me at Number Four.'"
Nolundi Ntamo, pass offender
"I grew up terrified of Number Four. I heard many stories of anguish from people who had been locked up in this god-forsaken place. It was an urban rite of passage for thousands of young black men and women growing up in a sick society."
Steve Kwena Mokwena, curator
"They told you that your life was over beyond the gate of the prison."
Nolundi Ntamo, pass offender