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Apartheid Museum

   - darkometer rating: 7 -
The pre-eminent museum about South Africa's dark 20th century history that was dominated by apartheid, and it also covers the struggle against that system and the country's road towards democracy. A must-see when in Johannesburg
More background info: for the general historical background of the museum's main topic see under apartheid.
The idea for the museum was first floated in 1995, the year after South Africa's first fully democratic elections, as part of a wider scheme for the development of an amusement park and casino, called Gold Reef City (which sits atop a former gold mine that was closed in 1971). The museum opened in November 2001. It has since established itself as one of the key attractions for foreign tourists in Johannesburg.
What there is to see: A lot. When I visited this place it was part of a longer Johannesburg tour and I found the two hours allocated for this museum way too tight. I ended up having to skip quite a bit of detail in order to make it back to the entrance within that time. It's better to go on your own and allow yourself as much time as you want.
Once you've purchased your tickets you're sent on your way to the entrance, which is actually quite a distance from the ticket booths. You pass a reflecting pool and several tall concrete stelae rising into the sky. On these are inscribed the seven fundamental values which form the basis of South Africa's new constitution that was drawn up in the late 1990s: democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom.
Then you come to the entrance to the museum complex proper and are immediately faced with the sort of segregation that so undermined those said fundamental values. At the ticket office you are randomly given tickets that either state “white” or “black”, and you have to choose one of the two entrances marked the same; well, actually they say “Blankes/whites” and “Nie-Blankes/Non-Whites” (the first words being in Afrikaans, of course). That's how my wife and I got temporarily separated, as she had a “white” ticket and mine was “black”.
Inside this first section, though, both paths are about the general system of segregation and display a mass of those ID passes specifying what racial categories people were classed as. Also covered is one of the most crazy aspects of apartheid, namely that people could appeal to an official board to be reclassified and thus officially “change colour” (hence the informal designation “chameleon dance”). While this was very much the exception rather than the rule, still hundreds were indeed promoted from “coloured” to “white” or from “Indian” to “coloured”, while others were demoted from e.g. from “white” to “coloured” or from “coloured “ to “black” (but nobody was switched from white to black or vice versa).
Back in the open air, the museum circuit continues up a ramp past a number of upright perspex slabs depicting people of different races. This is the “Journeys” section that symbolically represents the beginnings of Johannesburg from the gold rush of 1886 onwards, as more and more people came to the place to seek their fortune and the result was, initially, an ethnic mix.
On the side, literally, physically, the story of the very first people in South Africa, the San (or “Bushmen”), is also covered, namely through alcoves in which “rock art” is displayed – well not actual rock art but representations of it in a rather modern-art style. One text panel here I found especially illuminating: it said that the word “Hottentots” was actually an onomatopoeic word used by the early Dutch settlers to refer to the San based on how the Europeans perceived the unique clicking sounds of their language. I'd never known that before! Also illuminating, in a depressing way, I found an incredibly racist quote by Charles Dickens (I won't reproduce it here).
At the top of the (narrowing) ramp you come to a platform with a view over Johannesburg, and then descend some steps into the chasm between the two wings of the museum, to get to the entrance to the main permanent exhibition. In the foyer, an intro film about the earlier history of South Africa is played (called “the first 2500 years”) and there's a section about how Johannesburg became a mass gathering place due to the gold rush.
After this point no photography was allowed in the museum, so I'll try to describe the contents of the exhibition in more illustrative words to compensate for the lack of images.
Inside the main exhibition it is very dark and various loudspeakers and video screens playing loops of audio-visual footage create a rather eerie and a bit confusing atmosphere. That's also not helped by the fact that the circuit through the exhibition is rather labyrinthine. You have to pay very close attention to the arrows and numbers of the subsections in order to not get lost. I had to retrace my steps a few times to get back on the correct course.
The first section is about the foundations of apartheid in the racial segregation introduced already from 1910 when South Africa had first become a union state. A key figure here was Boer-War veteran, statesman and twice South African prime minister Jan Smuts. After he lost the 1948 election to the even more hard-line white-supremacist National Party, full apartheid was introduced, which is the topic of the next section.
An especially repulsive bit here is a video with footage of one of the key architects of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, speaking about and justifying apartheid, using at one point the cynical euphemism of apartheid meaning “good neighbourliness” and at another describing it as a “final solution” (and mind you, this was after WWII and the Holocaust so he should have known how tarnished that expression had become!).
Amply illustrated are the forced relocations of blacks into black-only homelands and townships as well as the various increasingly restrictive laws laid down under apartheid, such as the Pass Laws. Early resistance against these measures is covered too, then we move on to the stage where things got more violent from 1959/1960 onwards. A particular focus is on the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960 when at least 69 people were killed when police opened fire on blacks protesting against the pass laws.
This is followed by the authorities' increasingly brutal clamping down on resistance, including the arrests of resistance leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, and the infamous Rivonia trial of 1963-1964 in which most leaders of the resistance were sentenced to life imprisonment, including Mandela, who was subsequently moved from Pretoria prison to Robben Island.
An especially moving section is that displaying black-and-white photographs shot by Ernest Cole in the Life under Apartheid in the 1960s section. These images show how black workers were treated like cattle and humiliated in various ways. Cole actually had to flee the country and his photos were banned in South Africa, until they were displayed here for the first time in this country.
The next section is about the rise of Black Consciousness, and there's a video of Steve Biko explaining it, as well as one about strikes in Durban in 1973.
We then come to the very grimmest, darkest sections of the museum: political executions and detentions without trial. An installation of 131 nooses hanging from the ceiling symbolically stand for the 131 political prisoners executed by the state, and on the wall are panels with the images and stories of some of the victims, also of those who died in custody, such as, most infamously, Steve Biko in 1977. This section also includes the reproduction of the execution chamber at Pretoria prison.
Adjacent to this is the recreation of a cell block. You can enter cells that are exactly of the type in which political prisoners were held in solitary confinement. After that you can step outside into a small courtyard in which a installation stands that represents Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island from 1964 to 1982. Its inside space is of the same small dimensions as the original, but the walls are made of rusty metal mesh and so feel more like a modern-art sculpture.
Back inside, the next topic is that of the turning point that was the Soweto Uprising of 1976, when students initially protested against the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools (though few blacks spoke it). The police violently crushed the protests, again opening fire on the peaceful crowds, killing at least 176 (possibly hundreds more).
This is followed by a section called “total onslaught”, which is about the 1980s, when black resistance became more organized and daring, while at the same time the white regime resorted to yet more violence and states of emergency. It is in this section that the largest and most imposing exhibit is to be seen: a so-called “casspirarmoured vehicle, a humongous hulk of metal with huge wheels and a totally menacing aura. Such mine- and ambush-proof military vehicles were used by the police to patrol the townships, obviously to instil fear in the residents. Apparently the latter referred to such vehicles as “hippos”, which makes sense once you know that hippos are not the docile, cuddly creatures they are often misunderstood as in the West, but actually the by far most dangerous animal on the African continent (more people get killed by hippos annually than by any other animal).
There's also a 20-minute film about the violent times of the 1980s, followed by a section about international solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement and the increasing political pressure the South African government was under, with boycotts and sanctions from the outside world leading to the regime's ever more isolated position in the international community. At the same time, more and more whites were expressing opposition to apartheid. It was time for change.
The beginnings of change are accordingly the topic of the next section, covering the initial tentative talks between both sides, and eventually, with the new prime mister de Klerk (see under apartheid) coming into office in 1989 replacing his hard-line predecessor Botha, and the subsequent lifting of the ban on the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990. A video of a landmark speech by de Klerk announcing these moves can be watched in this section, as can a video of Mandela's joyous release itself.
What followed, however, was far less joyous. On the contrary. The transition to democracy between 1990 and 1994 actually turned out bloodier than the years of apartheid had been. Clashes between different black resistance factions and ethnic groups as well as violent reactions on the part of white right-wing extremists cost some 14,000 lives.
A stark exhibit in this section is a vast collection of decommissioned weapons and a sculpture made from melted-down AK-47s called “crucible”.
The final sections in the museum then cover the political moves towards peace, the complete abolition of apartheid and the first fully democratic elections in South Africa in 1994 and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the country's first black president.
The new constitution of 1997 is dutifully celebrated in this last part of the museum as well, but there's also a section about the difficulties the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Desmond Tutu had to deal with.
And so you finally emerge from the darkness of the museum's interior out into the open, which is a “veld garden”, i.e. a recreation of a typical South African landscape.
Instead of heading straight to the exit, however, it may be worth checking out the temporary exhibition space. To get there you have to make your way back to the entrance at the bottom of the spiral stairs. At the time I was there, in late July 2018, the special exhibition was about Nelson Mandela that was opened to coincide with the great man's 100th birthday (he was born in 1918 and passed away in 2013). It has/had different subsections, including about Mandela as a leader, as a political prisoner, as a negotiator and eventually statesman. But since that's only a temporary exhibition I won't go into details here. By the time you read this it may well have been replaced by a new temporary exhibition.
Finally, at the far end of the garden/courtyard is a well-stocked museum shop, where you can buy brochures, books, DVDs and so on about the history of apartheid and related topics as well as regular souvenirs and even music CDs.
All in all, I found the museum very impressive, and even though I already knew quite a bit about its topic there was plenty that was new to me or was in other ways illuminating and revealing. So even though I have some minor issues with aspects of the main exhibition's design, I can overall recommend it wholeheartedly. Not to be missed when in Jo'burg for any amount of time.
Location: on the corner of Northern Parkway and Gold Reef Road, in Ormonde, Johannesburg, ca. 6 miles (10 km) south of the city centre (at Constitution Hill) and ca. 10 miles (15 km) east of Soweto.
Google maps locator: [-26.238, 28.009]
Access and costs: a bit out of town, but easy enough to get to by car/taxi; reasonably priced.
Details: To get to the museum you really need a car or taxi, unless it's part of a longer city tour by coach. It's preferable to go here independently, though, for reasons of time in particular.
The location is fairly quick to reach, despite the distance from the city centre, thanks to it being close to the M1 trunk road/motorway, so the drive takes only about 10 minutes (traffic permitting, that is). There's a huge parking lot, partly shared with the adjacent Gold Reef City amusement park and casino.
As far as I could tell, there are no public transport connections to the museum.
Admission: 95 ZAR (concession 80 ZAR), which is perhaps a bit above average for South African museums, but by international standards is a very reasonable price (imagine what such a museum could charge in the US!)
Opening times: daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed only on Good Friday, Christmas Day and New Year's Day).
Inside the main permanent exhibition as well as in the temporary exhibition, there was a strictly enforced (and policed) no-photography rule in force. Hence the dearth of images in the gallery below.
Time required: The museum suggests a short circuit of one hour, skipping a few bits, or a complete one that's supposed to last two hours. I found two hours were not enough to fully do the museum justice, and if you want to explore the temporary exhibition as well, you'll definitely need more time. I'd say rather something like 3-4 hours is more realistic.
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Johannesburg.
Given that the museum is ca. halfway between the city centre and Soweto, it makes a perfect stop en route before or after going there.
Thematically, the former prison complex at Constitution Hill makes the most meaningful combination.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: if you're into such things, then the amusement park and casino complex Gold Reef City provides the easiest combination with more mainstream fun. Otherwise see under Johannesburg.
  • Apartheid Museum 1 - black and whiteApartheid Museum 1 - black and white
  • Apartheid Museum 2 - reflective poolApartheid Museum 2 - reflective pool
  • Apartheid Museum 3 - pillarsApartheid Museum 3 - pillars
  • Apartheid Museum 4 - separate entrancesApartheid Museum 4 - separate entrances
  • Apartheid Museum 5 - segregationApartheid Museum 5 - segregation
  • Apartheid Museum 6 - institutionalized racismApartheid Museum 6 - institutionalized racism
  • Apartheid Museum 7 - reflection at many anglesApartheid Museum 7 - reflection at many angles
  • Apartheid Museum 8 - artApartheid Museum 8 - art
  • Apartheid Museum 9 - aging MandelaApartheid Museum 9 - aging Mandela

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