Workers Museum

   - darkometer rating: 5 -
A small but illuminating museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, about the conditions in which black migrant workers were held from the early 20th century onwards. It also tells the story of the contribution of workers' associations and unions in the struggle against apartheid.   
More background info: The museum is housed in what used to be a the Newtown Compound, a “hostel” for black migrant workers, especially to house the labourers toiling in Jo'burg's gold and diamond mines. Hundreds of such compounds were set up to accommodate the masses of labourers.
In this case, though, the compound, built in 1913, was for workers of the power station next door. It housed some 330 workers in extremely basic conditions and with a tough regime of strict rules, which made the workers' lives pretty much akin to that of slaves, except that they were paid (if only a pittance). It's just another one of the many appalling aspects of racial segregation, and later full apartheid, in South Africa in the 20th century.
There were three successive power stations here, in what has accordingly become known as the “Electrical Precinct”. The one replacing the two predecessors in 1927 became the main supplier of electricity for the city until the power station at Soweto was built; and this one in Newtown was closed in 1960. First used for storage, most of the plant was demolished in the 1980s, including its own set of four grand cooling towers, which were spectacularly blown up in 1985. One large structure that partly survived is the former Turbine Hall, now converted into an events centre (see under Johannesburg).
The former workers' compound, also initially used for storage after the power station's demise, was declared a national monument in 1995, and initially housed a library. The current museum was opened in 2010.
The closure of this workers' compound didn't mean the end of such workers' “hostels” at large. According to one information panel at the museum (and its website) some seventy government compounds and hostels are still operating in the province of Gauteng alone. And while the racist oppression and abuse may have gone, the living conditions are still characterized by deprivation, lack of sanitation and privacy.
What there is to see: Once you're through the entrance and security, you can head straight on and to the right-hand side of the compound to get an impression of the living conditions of the former migrant workers' hostel.
The sleeping quarters are especially stark: just a row of concrete shelves at floor level and a tier of wooden bunks above. No mattresses were provided and there was no privacy. A single small oven in the centre provided heating and a cooking facility. The window panes were painted over in white so that the black men inside could not look out into the white people's world.
On the walls are written quotations that describe the conditions the workers had to endure, while along the front of the concrete “beds” signs quote the many rules enforced by the management of these compounds. These included, for instance, this: “No African shall bring or cause a female to be in or on the Compound premises”, or: “No African shall vomit other than in a toilet pan or place provided for the purpose.”
The lack of privacy carried over to the toilets: just a row of squat loos, one for every 55 or so workers, without any partition. Similarly the showers, just a room with a row of overhead shower heads, one per every 165 workers, no partitions, and the water would have been cold.
There was a lock-up room, basically a prison cell, in which workers who had broken the rules or were unruly, were incarcerated, before likely being fired the next day. Out in the courtyard is a tree onto which workers to be punished were chained, even overnight, if the lock-up room was occupied.
Also in the courtyard is a small squat brick building which used to be the compound manager's office. Compound managers, always white men, were responsible for the hostel and its occupants, but basically had the power to rule on a whim. The manager would be assisted by a so-called Induna, a black intermediary of sorts, who'd translate for the manager and would also be the first port of call for any workers' complaints. Panels with quotes from both former compound managers and former Indunas provide illuminating insights.
The compound manager lived on-site, or rather in a spacious house directly adjacent to the hostel part – and in conditions and style that couldn't have contrasted with the plight of the workers more. Likewise there were family houses for skilled white workers who enjoyed similar levels of comfort – while in the backyards there were tiny little shacks for domestic workers, i.e. black women doing the cleaning for their white superiors.
One wing of the compound now houses a permanent exhibition. Here some personal belongings of workers are on display and text-and-photo panels provide several individual stories and experiences, including the agony of having had to leave families behind to work in the city, and how both sides struggled with the separation.
Other panels provide statistics revealing the extremely low wages paid to black workers, who remained poor despite the pay – actually increasingly so, as one panel explains, since the slow rise of wages fell more and more massively behind the poverty line. Another topic here is that of resilience and resourcefulness on the part of the migrant workers in coping with their lot.
There's another exhibition section upstairs on a level constructed on metal stilts under the roof. In fact there are two halves, one along a timeline from 1800 to 1939, the other covering the period from 1940 to the present day.
In the first half the history of mining and increasing attraction of migrant workers from all over southern Africa is in the foreground. In the second half the evolution of workers' associations and the role unions played in the struggle against apartheid and exploitation are a particular focus. In addition to a timeline, with significant events explained in some detail, such as strikes and the Soweto uprising in 1976, there are posters from organizations such as the UDF (see under apartheid) or the National Union of Mine Workers. An interesting display is that of letters of complaints by workers from the 1970s that gives insights into their main worries. A panel about the legacy of the migrant worker system up to the present day forms a suitable final chapter.
All in all, I found this museum to be quite a revelation. It provides insights into a world that is otherwise not much talked about, and only plays a side role in the bigger and better known main Apartheid Museum. So it forms a worthwhile addition to that and shouldn't be missed when in Johannesburg with sufficient time at hand. Recommended.
Location: in the heart of Johannesburg, at 52 Jeppe Street, Newtown Cultural Precinct.
Google maps locator: [-26.2033, 28.0323]
Access and costs: easy enough to find, best by taxi; free.
Details: to get to the museum from other parts of sprawling Johannesburg it is best to get a taxi straight to the door. The newly developed Cultural Precinct of Newtown may be comparatively safe, but surrounding areas may be less so. There's a large car park right by the square in front of the museum, accessed from Miriam Makeba Street, where you can be dropped off and picked up again.
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays, over Christmas and on Good Friday.
Admission free.
Time required: ca. one hour.
Combinations with other dark destinations: In general see under Johannesburg.
The closest other dark attraction here is Constitution Hill, which would seem to be within walking distance even (it's only 2 miles/3 km). However, you are advised not to walk it, for security reasons, but to get a taxi for that short distance too.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Just behind the Workers' Museum is one of Johannesburg's main other museums, the “MuseuMAfricA” (yes, spelled just like that!), which is, naturally, about the African heritage of the country and the region; opening times: Tuesday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., admission free.
Right across the square in front of the Workers' Museum entrance is the science centre “Sci-Bono Discovery Centre”, featuring lots of hands-on sciency educational elements; opening times: weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at weekends only to 4:30 p.m; admission: 48 ZAR (adults, children 3-16: 32 ZAR). Extra charges may apply for additional exhibitions.
  • workers museum 1 - entranceworkers museum 1 - entrance
  • workers museum 2 - sculptureworkers museum 2 - sculpture
  • workers museum 3 - in a former migrant workers hostelworkers museum 3 - in a former migrant workers hostel
  • workers museum 4 - crammed conditions and strict rulesworkers museum 4 - crammed conditions and strict rules
  • workers museum 5 - ovenworkers museum 5 - oven
  • workers museum 7 - cellworkers museum 7 - cell
  • workers museum 8 - cold showersworkers museum 8 - cold showers
  • workers museum 9 - labourworkers museum 9 - labour
  • workers museum 9 - upstairs exhibitionworkers museum 9 - upstairs exhibition

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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