The original cell-block of the Burger Street Jail was built in 1862 to replace the Voortrekker jail which stood on the market square in the centre of Pietermaritzburg. It is one of the oldest-surviving government buildings in the city and is noteworthy because it combines redbrick and sandstone in its construction.
The jail was considered a medium security installation and housed 1800 prisoners, most of whom were awaiting trial. The jail was equipped with a number of gallows to perform executions and it is commonly believed that there was one gallows above the cellblock doorway to enable executions to be carried out in public.
Among those people held at the jail were prisoners from the Inniskilling Fusiliers who mutinied while stationed at Fort Napier in 1887. King Dinuzulu was held at the jail between 1907 and 1909, after the Bambatha Uprising, and, in later years a number of high-profile political prisoners, including Archie Gumede and Omar Essack were held there. There have been rumours that Nelson Mandela was kept there overnight but these are apparently untrue.
The jail was closed in 1989 and, in 1992, was given to a group of churches in the city to be run as a charitable venture under the name of Project Gateway. The aim was to empower and uplift local communities and activities have included an emergency relief feeding programme for the Foxhill community, sewing training and adult literacy.
Visitors are welcome and there is a craft shop where items, including many made on the premises, are sold. There is a coffee shop which generates income for the project but offers the opportunity to train people for work in the hospitality industry. In future, it is intended to expand the tourism component at the jail to generate additional funds for the project.