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Constitution Hill: Memory, ideology and utopia

B Ashcroft


The opening of the Constitutional Court on the 21st March 2004 in Johannesburg was an eventful national day, because, built on the site of the notorious Number 4 prison, the Court symbolized the intention to build a just future out of the memory of oppression. The incorporation of existing prison buildings and materials in the new court building reinforced the discourse of rebuilding and reconciliation that was to characterise the new nation state. As a text the building yields a broader and paradoxical meaning, for the utopian vision of a just future rests in a building in the service of state ideology. This is a paradox because ideology and utopia are regarded as opposites—ideology legitimates the present while utopia critiques it with a vision of a transformed future. However the building demonstrates a feature of ideology that Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch first revealed: that all ideology has a utopian element because without it, no “spiritual surplus, no idea of a better world would be possible.” This essay reads the building to show both the function of memory in visions of the future, and the function of utopia in ideology, while using Bloch’s theory to interpret the utopian function of the building.

Keywords: Constitution Hill (South Africa), memory, ideology and utopia