Heritage Blog 1

 Initial planning and investigations on this project have identified a proposed

naming and branding of the heritage site as ‘The Old Pietermaritzburg Prison’.


The concept of Old Prison Museum was established in 1996 when the Executive Board of Project Gateway gave permission for this concept to be materialised.  It was to be transformed to reflect the  integrity of a Cultural Heritage Visitor Attraction.


We ensured that it reflected determined themes and ultimately directives of choice of media for transference of this content within the context of a cultural /heritage visitor attraction. ‘Real’ content – actual events, histories, personal accounts, preserved fabric, original surroundings etc - presented in a way which supports this integrity is what sets a cultural / heritage attraction apart from, for example, an artificially constructed attraction themed around a particular era or series of events.

It is accepted that the jail – the buildings, physical infrastructures, associated histories and contexts - all constitute a noteworthy heritage resource, have cultural significance and form part of the national estate, as discussed and defined by the National Heritage Resources Act, 1999.


Background to the site:

The first Jail in Pietermarizburg dated back to Voortrekker times and was a small mud brick house on the Market Square. This site was commissioned in 1862, and since this time housed prominent individuals and groups associated with events spanning a seminal 140 year period of the country’s history from Colonial times, through Union and apartheid, the liberation struggle and ultimately to the dawn of a democratic South Africa in 1994. Preliminary research to date places persons of international reknown here such as King Dinizulu (jailed here in 1888 before his exile to St Helena and again in 1907 for his role in  the Bambatha Rebellion), Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi, his wife Kasturba, Harry Gwala and Florence Mkhizi, to name but a few, within the walls of this institution.


During the South African War, 1899–1902, groups of Natal Rebels and their families were frequently held in the jail under British rule, leaving written accounts describing conditions during this period, while the narrative of the numerous women who were incarcerated here illustrate the role of women in the various campaigns of resistance and struggle in South Africa. Many Indians were imprisoned here for Passive Resistance activities inspired by Gandhi during the first half of the 1900’s.


Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, turbulent years of vicious repression and violence, the cells overflowed with perceived activists who had contravened prevailing apartheid laws, affiliated with banned organisations or participated in other struggle-linked activities deemed treasonous and illegal by the state.  The events of 1976 galvanised black youth and the cells in Pietermaritzburg were frequently filled with children and students arrested for protest activities. The graffiti in the single un-painted cell in the 1862 block bears testimony to this occupation.


Struggle against oppression of one kind or another is a dominant theme when considering a narrative for the Pietermaritzburg Jail, and links to other significant places of incarceration such as Robben Island and the Old Fort are obvious. However, the jail also offers opportunities to discuss and understand other social and cultural issues: a report from the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cape Town deals with a long history of prison gangs in South Africa and an effective ‘national network’, at one time controlled by a Pietermaritzburg inmate. This engenders potential interpretation around the South African prison system, its history and effect on social structures. The existing buildings and physical infrastructure present a contextual landscape of use patterns over 140 years. This layered landscape of structures and functions, materials and methods compliments and underscores the intrinsic human tapestry and tender a multi-faceted record, undeniably valuable as a window onto a broader South African socio-historical background.

The buildings are generally in good repair, some restored, many of the original ‘jail’ fittings are still in place and post-’94 modifications and alterations are minimal, even given current use as the headquarters of Project Gateway.