Prison Diary – Constitutional Hill

If you want to combine a visit that is political, historical, beautiful and moving, then make a plan to get to Constitution Hill to see the incredible exhibit of artworks by the late activist Fatima Meer.

Fatima Meer

Fatima Meer became politically active at the age of 17, fighting South Africa’s apartheid laws. She was first banned in 1952 at the age of 24, helped organise and took part in the Women’s March in 1956, protested in the 1960s against unlawful detentions, was banned again in the 70s and then arrested in 1976 soon after the Soweto Riots. She was detained at the Women’s Gaol at Constitution Hill with 11 other women, all part of the Federation of Black Women. Meer was with women like Winnie Mandela, Sibongile Mkhabela, Joyce Seroke, Ethel Manunya, Jane Phakathi, Lorrain Tabane and Deborah Mashoba.

To keep herself sane, Meer wrote and painted almost daily. Initially she was only given scraps of paper and a ball-point pen, but was later given paints and paper with instructions to paint flowers only.

Flowers in Confinement: Fatima Meer’s defiant sketches of women in prison

She did. She painted beautiful flowers. But then she also painted the prison and the women inside it. Her pictures of the prison, the notorious Fort and the courtyard (which you can visit at Con Hill) are extraordinary. There is light amongst the dark. She painted the daily hardships of prison life but also intimate moments of the women helping each other, chatting, doing their hair and playing cards.

Of course Fatima Meer was reported to the authorities for not painting flowers but she kept at it and somehow had the superintendent on her side. She managed to get some of the paintings smuggled out of the prison, apparently with the help of Winnie Mandela who had ‘inside contacts’ – a female warden who was black.

Two prisoners in the courtyard playing a card game by Fatima Meer

These beautiful paintings are now part of Constitution Hill’s permanent art exhibits. You can visit daily, from 9 am to 5 pm. If you want to do a tour of Con Hill, which we highly recommend, tours depart on the hour, every hour, and are R65. Check the website as there are different tours available. You can also wander through Con Hill on your own if you prefer. And entrance to see the art is free.

Prisoners in uniform in the courtyard by Fatima Meer

It’s an incredibly moving exhibition. And the space is extraordinary too. Go and see it. There’s also a fab coffee shop, The Hill Cafe, with divine light meals and delicious treats.