Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg

I have a ticket that says "Non-White" on it and in the days of apartheid South Africa that fact would have ruled my entire existence. Today it's a deliberately awkward token for me, as a white person, to gain entry to the Apartheid Museum in a quiet suburb of southern Johannesburg. The complex is an award-winning building in landscaped grounds that are such a contrast, possibly deliberately so, to the Gold City theme park and casino next door; the regular clatter of a joy-riding helicopter from the theme park adds an unintentionally sinister backdrop to the museum.
The whole story of apartheid is exceptionally well told, like a modern-day Chaucer's Tale, unravelling the journey of how a group of real Johannesburg people got to  where they are today. You start with them walking up a bare, brick slope in the heat, past enclaves of San art before diving down into a maze of rooms that looks at every aspect of the hated form of government.

The museum cleverly pieces together the social, economic and cultural backgrounds and manages to do so without too much emotion. Indeed, the museum manages to portray the historic antecedents of Boer, Zulu, San and English natives and settlers very evenly. But from the beginning, the writing is on the wall for the indigenous populations as the settlers force their ways and their means on those already there. It culminates in the election in 1948 of an overtly racist government. Perhaps some of the most chilling moments are watching newsreel clips of cabinet ministers casually defending the indefensible, alleging that the litany of laws and rules was for the benfit of all people.

The Apartheid Museum doesn't need to add emotion, because you add your own at appropriate moments. Whether it is anger at Malan and Vorster, or feeling your eyes water when you read the visitor book that shows all Nelson Mandela's prison visitors from 1964 to 1970 - 29 visits in all, all an hour or less - in neat handwriting, including the 1966 visit of his mother just before she died.

Man does terribly trange things to man, but not many can compete with the sophisticated, instituionalised hatred, contempt and brutality bred here in South Africa in those dark days.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed your post on the Museum. Become a fan of the Museum on Facebook and share this with others. These are thoughts worth spreading.