Walking through history

Landmark museum offers moving, immersive experience


A visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is an overwhelming experience, for here is a confrontation with the whole horrifying system of state-sponsored degradation. Here is a curated history of apartheid.

One afternoon recently, I took my mother to see it. We walked through the segregated entrances – famously, and cleverly, you are given a ticket that designates you as black or white, and you enter through the separate doors. The apartheid signs hanging in the corridors are a stark introduction to what you will find inside. As we walked through into the museum, we heard the strains of Die Stem. I haven’t heard the old anthem in ages.

“Some sounds never leave you,” I said to my mother.

“Especially when you have to sing it in school every day,” she replied. “But I didn’t sing it. I refused.”

I looked at her in surprise. “So did I!”

How was it that we had never discussed this before?

We descended the stairs into the museum proper, looking at the exhibitions relating to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the life of Nelson Mandela, and an exhibition of artists against apartheid. Playing on a TV screen was footage of the 1986 Clapham Commons concert of artists united against apartheid, calling for the release of Mandela, among others. The concert wasn’t shown in South Africa at the time, but there was another sense of familiarity at hearing it. News and images had filtered back to us. I was catapulted back to the 1980s when I was a teenager in a government school of just whites.

Change foreseen

“One day I will be the first black president of South Africa,” Mandela declared in the 1950s – an astonishing claim. In a series of displays, as well as interviews playing on TVs, we witnessed something of his remarkable life. A more militant-looking Mandela is interviewed in the 1960s. Then the black-and-white interview is replaced by an interview in colour with Mandela talking about being circumcised at 15. “The pain went deep into my bones,” the now elder statesman said.

In the room dedicated to Tutu and the TRC, the stark white walls tell a different story – of a reverend who dared to defy and got away with it. With the introduction of Bantu Education, Tutu’s life changed. Formerly a teacher, he refused to teach in this new system and studied theology. Later, of course, he would head the TRC, taking in innumerable stories of abuse, torture, imprisonment.

A 15-minute film on the history of South Africa shows regularly in a large auditorium. While the events shown in the film will be well known to South Africans, the film still serves as a reminder of history. I thought back to the versions shown in my primary school. A projector whirred in the background, while an actor portraying Jan van Riebeeck planted a flag in this new land. I no longer remember what was said and would not have read the propagandist nuances implied in the films created for children attending Christian National Education schools, but I suspect they were there.

Apartheid was formally declared in 1948 by the newly elected National Party. This only made official the racism and segregation that had been endemic in South Africa since the Dutch arrived in 1652.

There is some of this history at the museum, looking at the beginnings of Johannesburg, the poor white problem, and the political history that led to the election of the National Party. As we walked around, my mother, born in 1942, vividly remembered that election. At six years old, she had been tasked with the job of listening to the big radio in the lounge and reporting back to her mother how many seats the National Party had attained. The counts kept increasing.

The apartheid laws started being promulgated. There were forced removals. People were classified and reclassified. There was the Treason Trial, the Women’s March in 1956, the Rivonia Trial, families split up. The history is told through archival footage playing on screens set up between the exhibits.

In one room, ropes hang from the ceiling – a chilling reminder of the fate that awaited some political prisoners. Just next to that is a replica of three prison cells used for solitary confinement. They are just long enough to lie down in, the walls closing in on each side.

In front of one TV screen, my mother and I listened to government ministers in the 1950s proclaiming that apartheid was a good system, one that could even be taken up by other countries. We simply looked at each other, wordlessly.

There’s a police Ratel, bullet holes in its small, high windows. Silent now, a museum piece, but somehow forbidding still – you can just about hear the sounds of shooting and people screaming.

The powerful black-and-white photos of South African photographer Ernest Cole line a series of walls. These documented life under apartheid and were collected in a book, House of Bondage. In one, a miner stares at the photo of his wife in a tribal reserve, working in Johannesburg. He will not see her until his contract ends.

A troubled dawn

It was a relief to come across a TV screen showing FW de Klerk in parliament in 1990, announcing the unbanning of political parties and the imminent release of Mandela. A sigh of hope now – CODESA was ahead, but also the bloody orchestrated violence that threatened to derail the country and the process. I was at university then, and a few months later, I attended a lunchtime address by some of these now-released political prisoners.

The pictures of snaking queues, of people waiting patiently to vote are emblematic of the 1994 elections: looking at them brought back my own experience of voting then, that sense of hope and euphoria in us. The rainbow dream had been realised. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika had been playing in the background.

Listening to the testimony of TRC victims was a sobering reminder that behind that rainbow dream lay a dark past. A mother mourning her dead child and refusing to cry, wants to be strong to tell this story today.

As we sat eating in the aptly named Truth Café, I kept returning to the exhibit on Mandela’s life.

Thembekile, his eldest, did not visit him in jail, which saddened him. In 1969, Thembekile was killed in a car accident. The display board reads: “His fellow prisoners remember the intensity of his grief. For weeks, Mandela withdrew. He would go into his cell and wrap his blanket around himself tightly, to keep his pain inside him.”

I held that image in my mind as I tried to process the wealth of information, the stories of lives torn apart, of political prisoners, politicians and the TV screens with their flickering histories. In the end, that image brings it home: of a man mourning a son, not having seen him for years, unable to go to his funeral, wrapping his grief tight in a blanket.

For more information, go to apartheidmuseum.org.


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