Apartheid Museum, Jo’burg

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“You see that building in front of us?”, the taxi driver said to me. As I looked ahead at the large, non-descript building, he told me, “It was a prison and during the days of apartheid, they used to keep political prisoners in there. They would torture them and often throw them out of the windows so they would fall to their deaths.”

My taxi driver was an older black man (probably in his 60s, I thought) who told me had lived in Johannesburg all of his life. What changes he must have seen, I thought to myself as he drove me from where I’m staying in Melville to the Apartheid Museum. “Johannesburg is a town for young people. It’s so hectic lots of older people move out to the countryside”, he told me, though adding he had no such plans himself.

As he dropped me off he twice used the phrase, “It’s very sympathetic” to describe the museum. A similarly aged white woman from an Afrikaans background had earlier told me the museum was “very fair about what happened”.

Inside the museum those attending were predominantly quite young. The exceptions were myself and an older man (mid 50s) who was pushing his father around in a wheelchair. There were probably more white people than black people (though not overwhelmingly so), and as I listened to the accents of the conversations of those around me, I would say half were international tourists and half were South Africans.

As you enter the museum and look down at your ticket you’re immediately confronted by the phrase “Your ticket to the museum has randomly classified you as either ‘white’ or ‘non-white”. Mine declared me as “non-white”. That meant I entered the museum through a separate gate to the older man and his father. As we entered through our separate entrances, I looked up at some of the signs of the apartheid era which declared train platforms, restrooms and the like as being for “Europeans only. Slegs blankes”.

You then walk through an area where there are images of modern day South Africans on mirrored walls. You soon discover these people are descendants of many well known names from the apartheid era.

As we all three entered the museum at about the same time, the older man and his father began a conversation with me. As we looked from the roof-top of the museum towards the city, the older man asked me if there was “…anything about the truth about South Africa” I would like to know. Unsure of how to respond, and somewhat fearful I might have been in the company of people who might have been about to tell me the museum was a fiction, I mumbled something about being a tourist from Australia and so I knew nothing at all. As he pointed out the different city landmarks, he added he has an interest in military history and was thinking of putting together a day-tour for tourists that would cover things like the Boer War. He asked me if I thought $130 for the day for a personalised tour was expensive. I said “for a personalised tour that would be okay”. “Of course, you Australians are doing very well now”, he told me, adding two of his daughters now live in Sydney.

The museum takes you back to the early days of the discovery of gold in Johannesburg, noting how the city had very quickly become one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world. There was unease, even in the early days about the “mixing” of nationalities.

In the wake of the war between the English and The Afrikaans which resulted in a “white union”, black people were then officially denied the right to vote in all areas (except the Cape Territory). Over the next forty years or so, an official policy of segregation existed which the museum explains what partly about race, and partly about managing white and black labour.

The museum then explains that by about the mid 1940s, when they were still having problems “managing labour”, the National Party differentiated itself from the other political parties by adopting apartheid. Unlike segregation which was about keeping people separate from each other, apartheid was more about forced settlement, as people were literally often moved overnights from their homes.

As I made my way around the Apartheid Museum, I thought about what the taxi driver had told me about the political prisoners, the gaol, and the torture. In particular, I thought about it when I came across a list of political prisoners who had died while in custody. A significant number of them had died from “suicide by hanging”.

The museum covers the resistance to apartheid, including by many white South Africans. There’s a particularly memorable piece of video which features a group of young white women standing in a line protesting against apartheid (probably in the 1960s, by the way they were dressed). As the camera goes along the line you can see the nervousness in their eyes, as in speaking out, they were perhaps fearful for their own safety, also.

The story inevitably leads you to the story of the African National Congress, and in particular to the story of Nelson Mandela. There’s actually a major temporary exhibition at the museum right now about Mandela or “Madiba” as he is now commonly called. The exhibition covers a lot of his life story, growing up in a small village predominantly surrounded by women; and a a video where he talks about his tribal circumcision (I know it’s “traditional” but still gross :)) at the age of sixteen.

In the midst of the grimness of what occurred in South Africa, there are moments of great joy, particularly around Mandela’s release from prison and becoming the first black president. There’s a particularly heart-warming piece of video (and story) around when South Africa defeated New Zealand in rugby union. The accompanying story-board tells you rugby union was, for many years, almost completely a “white sport” in South Africa. That all changed when Mandela turned up for the match in a stadium “where 95% were white” and embraces the players. The story-board tells you there was a moment of silence until someone began the slow chant, “Man-del-a” which eventually engulfs the entire stadium.

The exhibition about Mandela was, by far, the most popular part of the museum today. With the way his health is (or isn’t), I guess it’s a time for many people to go in, absorb themselves in his story, and to reflect on his life and work. I smiled, in particular, when I saw two white South African women (probably sisters by the way they looked) who were there with a young boy (of about seven or eight. He was wearing a Mandela t-shirt, and they were doing their best to explain to him the story behind many of the exhibition panels.

I really enjoyed the museum, despite the subject matter. I spent well over three hours walking around the museum and probably could have stayed longer. The only thing that made me decide it was time to move on was hunger pains! Unfortunately the museum cafe wasn’t open today.

Later in the afternoon I caught a taxi to Ghandi Square where I bought a pre-paid SIM card. As I looked around, there was evidence of a fair bit of poverty, and a fair of addiction. There was one woman showing signs of long-term addiction who came into the Vodafone shop while I was there and caused the staff a fair bit of grief. Despite the negatives, as I looked around I just saw lots of people getting on with their lives. That said, I took the advice I’ve read where you shouldn’t flash your mobile phone around, you should be careful with your money, and walk with the confidence of a local rather than as a wandering bleary-eyed tourist.

In the taxi on the way back to Melville, the driver and I listened to the radio. There was a news bulletin in another language which, of course, I didn’t understand until I heard the word “Mandela”. “What did they say?” I asked him. He told me his condition “was not good” and that he had “been critical but stable” for a week now. He was the first person I’ve spoken to who conceded Mandela was an old man and that maybe his time was up.

In contrast, the news bulletins on television keep optimistically talking about a recovery. On the “feel good breakfast show” (they actually use that phrase) on television this morning, they had a panel of people talking about the lessons which “all of us can learn from Nelson Mandela”, which I thought was very moving.

The other thing I noticed from watching breakfast television this morning was the large number of advertisements for funeral plans. Not being able to afford the expenses associated with a family funeral is obviously something which plays on the minds of many South Africans. Enough to at least see lengthy, almost “glossy” advertisements from three separate funeral plan companies during an hour of the breakfast show alone.

Arriving back in Melville late this afternoon, I called into the “Six Cocktail Bar” for a glass of wine and something to eat. Up there on the wall, along with those iconic images of Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevara and Bob Marley, was another iconic figure. Who else could it be but Madiba smiling down upon us?

PS. There’s a sign which asks you not to take photographs INSIDE the Apartheid Museum, so that’s why there none on this blog post, just in case you were wondering.

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