Posted by: Anna | December 7, 2010

Apartheid Museum

This is a hard post for me to write because apartheid provokes such strong emotions about the dignity of every person, which I have a hard time conveying here without this just turning trite. I ask you as the reader to forgive me for not capturing this as fiercely as it deserves.

Apartheid means apartness in Afrikaans, which is the language developed by the Northern Europeans who settled in South Africa. While similar to German, it incorporates Zulu, French, and English as well. Essentially, the practice of Apartheid was segregation – but taken to an even greater extreme.  There weren’t just separate schools and buses, but entirely separate towns created by forced relocation.

Let me say first that the museum is one of the best modern museums I have ever seen. The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg utilizes architecture to tell part of the story in an elegant way. When you buy your tickets, each is marked either white or non-white, and you must use the corresponding entrance. As you enter, you are greeted with samples of the mandatory identity cards required during Apartheid showing your race. Race (not just black and white, but also coloured, Indian, Asian) was determined for the identity cards by small committees of white people, and it was essentially an arbitrary decision based upon skin color, economics, and class. Interracial marriage was forbidden, so it happened that some couples were then illegally married after the fact when the commission determined them to be of different races. You could appeal and have your race changed, sometimes.

I thought of South Africa as the most developed of African countries, which is probably true by almost any standard. I also entered the country believing that I would find a Western atmosphere. This is both true and not true, and largely the contradictions arise out of the legacy of Apartheid. Certainly the roads are orderly, the city is clean, and we visited the doctor in a small clinic that felt very normal. On the other hand, unemployment is around 20%, and the crime rate, especially violent crime, is the highest of anywhere in the world I’ve been. The rape statistics alone are staggering, as are the carjacking. Strangely to me, the President is a polygamist and has been on trial for rape and corruption. South Africa brims with contradictions.

After going through the entrance to the museum, you walk through an outside area by a wall filled with stones, a reference to both the mining which served as the economic foundation of the country as well as the walls which separated people. As you walk, you see people depicted on the surface of mirrors walking with you, each of whom had ancestors who played a role of some kind during Apartheid. Inside the entrance to the museum building, you see memory boxes of each of those ancestors, giving a feel for the daily life of those people and the ways in which Apartheid impacted each one.

There are two main parts of the museum: the history of Apartheid main exhibit and the Nelson Mandela special exhibit.

The main exhibit winds around, using photographs, video, text, audio, and other tactile elements, including nooses to represent some of those who died during Apartheid. Most striking to me was a section that showed exerpts from a photography book published during the 1970s. A black photographer captured ordinary people in their regular lives and interviewed them about their daily lives. More than any other exhibit, this gave me the opportunity to understand more fully the meaning and impact of separateness, of lost opportunity. It reminded me, sadly, of reading The Help, set in America in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s. The photographs focused on sections of life, including work (domestic worker or laborer), religion, alcohol (banned, then once the government realized that making bootleg liquor gave poor women an income, legally produced only by the government…), and more. It is so hard for me to imagine that during my lifetime a country I think of as “modern” existed under such repressive and backward conditions.

The other striking thing about the exhibit, briefly, was the discussion on the modern constitution, which protects a wide berth of people (including gay people and pregnant women). It is considered one of the most modern constitutions in the world even with the problems here, at least constitutionally protections exist. I have come to appreciate my bias as an American to believing in the rule of law and that the laws that exist will be mostly enforced in a mostly uniform manner. Tommy and I had a discussion in which we agreed the thing we appreciate most about America is the Constitution.

Upon leaving the Museum, you are asked to move a rock from one side of the fence to the other, as a symbol of how the Museum has impacted you, and how you will carry the message of the Museum into the greater world. They have a meditation garden at the exit, and for good reason – it is an intense experience as I imagine visiting Auschwitz would be, or any symbol to human suffering on such a scale.

The Mandela special exhibit is largely a historical look at Mandela’s life.  It begins with his boyhood, where he was seemingly tabbed as a rising star at a very early age.  It follows his rise through the ranks of the ANC (African National Congress) and as a leader of the resistance to Apartheid, his championing the violent resistance (which surprised me, since I think of Mandela as a non-violent leader) to his time in prison.  It finishes with his release from prison after 27 years and his election to the presidency after the end of Apartheid.

The Apartheid Museum is not an experience I will soon forget, but I’m glad we did it early into our trip in Africa.




  1. I guess I should not be surprised that such a tough criminal culture sprang from such an ugly legacy. But somehow I am. I too am surprised that with the change in Apartheid, there hasn’t been a more positive rebirth in South Africa. It simply may take a generation or two (or three) — how sad.

    I would love to see the museum though. The most moving museum I have seen is the Pearl Harbor Memorial. I have wanted to see the Holocaust Museum but the lines are terrificly long.

  2. It very much sounds like the Holocaust Museum in DC. The architecture is used to set the tone and the lesson of the museum is to confront hatred, promote human dignity and to prevent genocide. It was very moving and so meaningful. It also had a “hall of remembrance” or place to contemplate after you exit the exhibits. They sound very much alike in their impact upon the visitor. Thanks for a wonderful tour through your blog.

  3. Never go the Anne Frank house. It’s just a house. There are no dead bodies or actors pretending to be dead. Are you telling me that there isn’t a hobo in Amsterdam that wouldn’t act out the Anne Frank story in the house? Did you know that Germans aren’t even Nazis anymore? It’s true. Don’t even get me started with the coffee flavored water they were serving. It didn’t pass for coffee in Nazi occupied Europe and it doesn’t pass for coffee now. I prefer the dark roast brew with just a hint of nutmeg.

  4. Tommy, I’ve been waiting for your power rankings to come out. Where does floating in the Red Sea sit? Was it surpassed by couchsurfing? Did white taxis move down a couple of spots? Does Ruslan Kim still have the top spot? And where is Ahmed in all of this? Did his passenger dodging on the train move him in 4th place?

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