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Constitution Hill: A complex history with an exciting future

New CEO, Dawn Robinson, highlights some of the developments taking place at this Gauteng landmark.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: South Africa celebrates Tourism Month, which is normally celebrated in September, with the aim of encouraging South Africans to explore their own country and it also provides the tourism industry with an opportunity for a sustained and heightened month-long focus on the importance of domestic tourism to the economy. While we are on that theme we have in studio, Dawn Robinson, she is the CEO of Constitution Hill. Thank you so much for your time and welcome.

DAWN ROBINSON: Thanks for having me.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Briefly take us through how Constitution Hill was a Johannesburg prison and that journey where it is now really the seat of where our Constitutional Court sits.

DAWN ROBINSON: Constitution Hill precinct is made up of the Old Fort, which was built in 1892, along with the notorious prisons that existed on site, which is the Number Four and Number Five men’s prison and the women’s jail. In early 2000s the Johannesburg Development Agency, together with Gauteng, got together and managed to convince the Constitutional Court judges that the new Constitutional Court in light of our new Constitution should be built on the site as well. That really triggered the regeneration project that exists today and it was really about providing a home for the Constitution in a place where some of the most horrific things had happened in our past and building the Constitutional Court there as a beacon that never again in our history will the atrocities of the past happen again. So it’s a very, very unique space but not only does it have the court and the four prisons, which are now museums and are about to be declared a National Heritage Site in November and are part of a listing for World Heritage Sites, which combines ten different sites around the country, it also has a number of new land developments that are happening on the site. So later this year we will start to build the new visitor centre, which will also be home to an amazing exhibition on our Constitution and will update on a daily basis judgements that have been made in the court so that you can keep abreast with what is happening. Then there are other land parcels that are going out on a PPP quite shortly and it includes things like hotels, apartment blocks, office spaces. So it’s really a multi-functional space, a complete precinct in the heart of Braamfontein that links Hillbrow and Braamfontein, very much connected to the community in which it is found.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: It’s such a gem and such an important part of our history, what is it like being the CEO of something that is so important?

DAWN ROBINSON: I was CEO of Gauteng Tourism for the last six years and I don’t think I truly appreciated what was there on the site until I got there. I started in early January and I literally spent three months just plodding through the archives, we are lucky enough to have the South African Heritage Archive Agency on site as well, and they had all the original documents from the time it was conceived, the masterplans, down to minutes of meetings and stuff like that and I just devoured all of this for the first three months, which really gave me a sense of what people were trying to achieve and where we need to take Constitution Hill. So it kicked off with great speed in the early 2000s and then money ran out, so it’s been a bit stagnant in terms of the new developments for the last four to five years but now Gauteng Provincial Treasury has given us the funding to build a visitors centre, and we are out on PPP on the rest, so it’s all systems go again. It’s just the most incredible privilege to be the CEO there.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Coming from Gauteng Tourism what is your assessment of our tourism industry?

DAWN ROBINSON: I think the tourism industry is recognized, particularly where we find ourselves today in South Africa, the tourism sector took a big knock last year, a combination of things, we had the residual effect of the fear of Ebola, Africa being “one country” and Ebola being all over the place, and added to that the whole Visa debacle, which really saw us take quite a big knock. I think it was about a 6.8% knock in overall figures to South Africa for the year. But I think where we are now, in January we were already 15% up, February 18% up, so the tourism sector is resilient and the tourism sector creates a lot of jobs, the figure fluctuates, so it goes from one to ten, to one to 15, depending on where you are. But for every one tourist you create ten to 15 jobs, so it has an incredible multiplier effect. Even for Gauteng, which gets a lot of visitors, particularly from what we call our Africa land markets and Africa air markets, and our Africa land markets, although we took a knock last year, were up. Obviously the air markets did take a bit of a knock as well. But the big thing that we are pushing in this country as part of Tourism Month is domestic tourism because it’s about making tourism available for all, getting all of us to be able to afford to travel and to a large extent it is about affordability but we still do buy those fancy bags, shoes and cell phones but we won’t be a tourist in our own backyard. In fact, my Twitter handle is #LiveLifeLocal, there is so much that you can do locally in South Africa, locally in Joburg, Gauteng and I think it’s important to try and get people to explore their own backyard.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: From your interactions with the stakeholders that you work with within Gauteng, how difficult or easy is it to market Gauteng, where people work in the Gauteng area but the moment the holidays or long weekends come along people want to go to the coast and they want to go to Cape Town. So how are you making Gauteng stand out and people get to see the gems?

DAWN ROBINSON: I have a saying that Gauteng is a net exporter of tourism because that’s what we do, we up and we leave. That’s fine because the other provinces need us to redistribute the wealth that we make here in Gauteng. But what we try to push as Gauteng is events, so last year Gauteng Tourism and Cabinet approved an events strategy, where we are trying to draw as many big events to Gauteng and hopefully by that we can keep Gautengers here for that but also attract people from other provinces. Gauteng Tourism is going on a big drive now into our neighbouring Africa land markets, trying to show people the lifestyle that we have in Gauteng, the fact that you don’t have to go to Paris, you can do all those things that you would get on a plane and go to Paris for and do them locally. What also helps is the weakening rand and dollar and things like that, so people can’t really afford to travel overseas as much as they could before. So it’s actually time to harness the rands that are left and try to get people to travel internally.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Speaking of that, is this also part of a, because if I remember correctly our former Minister of Tourism said that in terms of innovation and tourism around different parts of South Africa we need to change the business model and find ways of being innovative and attracting more tourists. Is that also encapsulated in this drive?

DAWN ROBINSON: Pretty much so and it’s about joint marketing, so not being particular, so for example as Constitution Hill we market jointly with the inner city, with the Red Bus that takes people through the inner city, it’s about co-operation rather than competition. I think that happens from a South African Tourism perspective, we are trying to sell South Africa together with our neighbouring states because if you are making that long distance haul from somewhere in Europe or the States, it makes sense that if you come to South Africa you maybe flip across and go to Victoria Falls or something like that. So it’s about trying to be more flexible in our approach and, like you say, embracing the new things that are happening and not pushing them aside.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: How easy is it to market Constitution Hill? Do we have a culture of museums within young people?

DAWN ROBINSON: We don’t and I have just been looking at our latest figures for the year to date and the biggest numbers are still coming in from schools but not enough, it should be three times that amount. So we’re doing a big push in terms of young people and getting young people involved and getting young people to come to the museums and also aligning what we have to offer with the school CAPS curriculum. So, for example, we recently opened an exhibition in partnership with the Indian Embassy, which kind of juxtaposes the life of Mandela and Ghandi, now that’s part of the CAPS curriculum and kids can come and see that. There is not enough of a museum culture, what Constitution Hill has become is the hipster haven, so it’s the place where you go for those cool events, where people hang out on the weekends. So there’s a young audience who come there for other things but it’s about how do you convert them once they are there? So generally when we have these events we’ll open up the museums as free and encourage people to go or if it’s an event where people are paying or a conference because we do have conferencing facilities as well, we’ll give away one free ticket to each conference delegate, knowing that they’ll never come alone, they’ll come with somebody else. So it’s that kind of thing that you’ve got to do to actually expose people to what we have to offer there.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: I understand that perhaps maybe on the school side it’s a little bit expensive for other schools to come into Gauteng and to come by bus, are there engagements perhaps between you and the Department of Education where we look at models where we can subsidise certain schools to be able to come through and visit?

DAWN ROBINSON: Not in place at the moment but I have just come out of a meeting with my team, where I have been saying to them so what are we going to do for underprivileged schools in Gauteng who can’t get here? How are we going to package for them? We also, for example, have been in conversation with the bus [service] because it’s very difficult to deal with 60 kids coming in on a bus in one go. Potentially put half the kids on the bus and let them do a tour of the inner city, while you take the other half and you do educational programmes with them Con Hill. So we are exploring those kinds of models. But we do other things, we have a range of public programmes, we have rapid response sessions, so if something happens, if there’s a landmark judgement in the court or Ayanda Mabulu has a painting that causes controversy we’ll have a snap rapid response dialogue, where we bring people into debate, what takes precedence, the right to dignity or the right to freedom of speech or we’ll put up an exhibition. Currently we’ve got exhibitions around Women’s Month, the whole thing around the Women’s March because it was the anniversary. We’ve got an exhibition up at the moment that looks at the history of posters and how posters were used particularly in the days of the UDF as a symbol of resistance. There are a lot of temporary exhibitions, apart from these permanent exhibitions, which exist on site. So we are really about creating dialogue, getting people to talk and the young audiences are very much involved in that.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: My next question and I think it’s on that note, how are you getting people to engage with the Constitution and know what’s in that book?

DAWN ROBINSON: Currently we are running a campaign called #IamConstitution, which really gets people involved with the Constitution and what the Constitution means to them. Some of the landmark judgements which we have had this year, I won’t mention which they are, but have really helped to uphold the Constitution for what it is and people have embraced it and almost personified the Constitution. So I think we have a lot more pull now and we are trying to capitalise on it and getting people to actually engage. But we do things like every Saturday morning we have a couple of schools that come in and we do a Bill of Rights workshop with them actually in the Constitutional Court. We do tours of the Constitutional Court, we do art tours, we run programmes for kids all the time around constitutionalism. But I think it’s really about making more of an impact with the adults, we’ve been exploring the possibility of maybe for the first time conceptualising an African conference on constitutionalism in Africa and we’re hoping if we pull that off we could have that as the first conference that happens in our new conference facility, which is part of the new building that’s going up this year.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: As the CEO of Constitution Hill what keeps you up at night, what do you stress about?

DAWN ROBINSON: Are the builders going to get onsite in time, will I get to build that building so that Treasury doesn’t take my money away [laughing].

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: [Laughing]

DAWN ROBINSON: I think I’m just very passionate and excited about what I’m doing and there, I’ve just told them that there is no Christmas for us unless we deliver everything that we promised to deliver before the end of the year and I think we will. So what keeps me up is new ideas, looking at new innovative ways of actually attracting things onto the site. One of the things that we are doing is we are converting the old mess hall, which is obviously where the guards would eat, not the prisoners, into a really, really funky upmarket restaurant. We’re putting that out to tender and it’s just been all approved and beautifully designed by an architect. So trying to attract more feet to the place, trying to expose more spaces, every day I find more spaces, do you know there are tunnels underneath the ramparts. There was a newspaper article the other day that possibly these tunnels link up with the tunnel under park station.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Yes, I heard about that.

DAWN ROBINSON: So it’s just amazing things that you discover on a daily basis. The best views of Johannesburg up on the ramparts at sunset, so we’re thinking of doing Friday sunset sessions up on the ramparts. So it’s just ideas, ideas, ideas on how we are going to make this iconic site, which everybody, including yourself, needs to visit.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Definitely. In terms of plans going forward, what are some of the programmes that you are going to be rolling out that people can participate in?

DAWN ROBINSON: We have a number of what we call signature iconic events that we do, so we do a Big Walk, which is happening on 26 March next year, which is We, the People Walk, it’s part of Human Rights Month and we have We, the Children Walk, so the children walk in defence of children’s rights. We have things like Jozi Yaka and Basha Uhuru, which is the June 16 festival that takes place for the youth. Jozi Yaka is a creative entrepreneurial festival. So we have a number of these key things that we do in terms of large events but then we have a whole range of temporary and permanent exhibitions that are constantly coming through and what we try to do is to host an exhibition that starts to ask questions and then wrap around that dialogue children’s programmes and other programmes. So we’re busy planning next year’s events now and we’ve got and we’ve got an international exhibition coming from the States in February that was showcased at the Joburg Art Fair and that’s going to be good as well. We constantly have three or four people a day coming in with some idea and we inevitably embrace it and make it happen.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Thank you so much for your time, that’s really amazing.

DAWN ROBINSON: Thank you.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: That was Dawn Robinson, she is the CEO of Constitution Hill.

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