The Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg
The slogan: Segregation is exactly where it belongs—in a museum.
More people than ever are traveling to South Africa, as it emerges from the years of sanctions and isolation during the Apartheid years. These years helped shape what the country is becoming, and what better place to begin an understanding of this historic process than at the Apartheid Museum? This extraordinarily powerful museum, opened in 2001, is certain to become one of South Africa’s most important tourist attractions.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission believed that it was important to find the country’s past problems, hurts, and injustices and expose them fully in order to heal them. This museum also hopes that by looking at that historical period fully, all the peoples of South Africa can gain some understanding of the differing sides and viewpoints, put the past behind them and move on to a more equitable future.
On seven tall concrete pillars outside the main building the following sentiments are carved vertically, a clear summary of this thinking:
And just past the ticket booth is a pool with a plain wall behind it, engraved with the words, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,” by Nelson Mandela.
The museum documents this epic saga. In summary: The path through the museum leads you on an emotional journey beginning with segregation, the cornerstone of apartheid. It then takes you back through the history of the many cultures converging during the pre-apartheid era, through the years of race classification and discrimination, the 150 Parliament Acts of apartheid, detentions, and the oppression by the Nationalist regime. You examine the rise of black consciousness, the armed struggle to overthrow this tyranny, and finally the release of Nelson Mandela after twenty-seven years of imprisonment, which allowed for final peace negotiations.
Your “ticket” is a plastic-coated sign on a key-chain, with either “White/Blanke”, or “Non-White/Nie-Blanke” on it, and that dictates what entrance you use: the one for whites or the one for non-whites. It’s a symbolic entrance, giving you a feel for what it must have been like to be classified in the apartheid days. In 1948, the white-elected National Party government formally implemented the policy of apartheid, which turned 20 million people into second-class citizens. The basic principle of apartheid was simple: Segregate everything. Cut a line through the nation to divide black from white and keep them divided.
Once through the entrance rooms, with signs proclaiming “Whites Only” or “Non-Whites here,” a walkway slopes up, with prison-like walls, made of metal cages filled with rocks, or unadorned concrete. The starkness imitates prison life and evokes the feeling associated with detention, oppression and division. You walk up, past alcoves with bushman and rock paintings, illustrations of the earliest inhabitants. There are also examples of more modern rock paintings with a militant, rebellious theme, or scenes of terrible battles with guns and horses done in the 1800s. A plaza at the top has a good view out to the downtown Johannesburg skyline and one huge gold mine dump. You then walk down to another plaza and into the actual museum, which is much bigger than you’d expect from the outside.
First you see a movie (not great, but it does give you an idea about the subject) that tries to give an overview of the factors leading to apartheid and during apartheid. The museum is much better. There are huge photographic panels, many photos, video clips of movies and old newscasts, posters and excellent informational boards. If you’re rushed, just read the highlighted summary at the top of each board.
It’s an attempt to confront and address the whole issue of apartheid—-hopefully, if the country can “look it in the eye” there can be some understanding and some healing and the country and its peoples can move on. When we were there the visitors were of all races and everyone was absorbed, very quiet. It’s a sobering place, to see the evidence of so much suffering, of pain, of bigotry.
The build-up to apartheid was slow and very complex. The museum tries to show this. First, the conflict between the original Bushmen and the Bantu peoples. Then conflict between Bantus and Boers. Then conflict between the whites—the British and the Boers. Then between whites and blacks.
Much of the conflict was over work opportunities, especially those created by, first, the diamond mines around Kimberley, and then the gold mines around Johannesburg. There were many people desperate for work, and there were also many poor white people, who the National Party decided they had to protect. Segregation came about as the result of the consequences of industrialization, such as the rise of urban slums, working class militancy, weakening of tribal authority in the African reserves. Segregation was designed to preserve white supremacy and prevent racial assimilation.
The museum does what no book can truly do; it brings visitors face to face with the plight of the segregated, and brings its history—good and bad—to life.
Plan to spend at least three hours.
Open: Tues-Sun 10am-5pm
Closed: Mondays, Good Friday, Christmas Day
Tickets: Adults R25, children and seniors R12. Discount for disabled.
The museum is right next to Gold Reef City and actually shares the same parking entrance. Free parking.
Address: Northern Parkway and Gold Reef Road, Ormonde, Southdale, Johannesburg
From M1 South take Booysens Road off-ramp. From M1 North take Xavier Road off-ramp. Follow signs to Northern Parkway and Gold Reef Road.
Tel: +27 11-309-4700