I remember, as a very small child, getting into trouble in a Johannesburg park. We’d walked a long way, I was tired and I sat down on an empty bench. But it was for Nie Blanks (Non-Whites). I thought this was stupid and said so loudly to the man. I remember my mother trying to hush me up. At the time, for me, as a privileged white middle-class girl, apartheid was made up of these trivialities. I realized as I grew older and began to understand that for others, it was much more real and far more grim. Yet even I, who had grown up in a segregated society (albeit on the other side of the fence) and knew the truth on paper, wasn’t truly prepared for what I saw in the Apartheid Museum.
Black and White
As you enter the deliberately stark and colourless building, you are separated into black and white sections. The museum has 22 exhibition sections. They chart the story of race in South Africa from their mixing and merging in the Johannesburg goldfields through the first efforts to segregate the races by Jan Smuts and JBM Hertzog to Hendrik Verwoerd’s introduction of apartheid in 1948. From there, the museum follows the chilling story of the Sharpeville Massacre, the Soweto Uprisings, cataloging arrests and torture, communities destroyed and forcibly removed to remote locations. And it follows the people who fought back, the architects of freedom and the road to democracy.
There is a vast amount to take in. It’s heavy on reading material and you could spend days pouring over films and photos and listening to audio-tapes of first-person accounts. Going around the museum also takes a heavy emotional toll. The room hung with 121 nooses representing executed political prisoners is chilling. So is the audio-visual drive through a township inside the police armoured vehicle. And that is without the weapons, and the photos.
Yet there is also, as elsewhere in the new South Africa, a real sense of triumph and of hope, a sense that good has prevailed over evil. The later exhibits chart the road out of apartheid and towards democracy, the first elections, Nelson Mandela's swearing in as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, and Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Somewhat bizarrely, the museum stands next to Gold Reef City, a casino and theme park dedicated to Jo’burg’s days as a mining town. Paying for the museum was the price paid by Gold Reef City for their licence. Actually, it’s no bad thing. Far too many people try to do Soweto and the Apartheid Museum in a single day. Don’t – it’s far too heavy, there’s too much to take in.
Spend the morning at the Apartheid Museum then head across the road to Gold Reef City for some light relief and give it time to sink in. Leave Soweto for another day.
Address: Northern Parkway and Gold Reef Road, Ormonde, Johannesburg. Take the Booysens offramp on the M1 south, and follow the signs to the Museum.
Tel: +27 (0)11 309 4700
Open: Tuesday to Sunday 10am-5pm. Allow an absolute minimum of two hours, preferably at least half a day.
Age restriction: Due to the graphic nature of some exhibits, the museum is not considered to be suitable for children under the age of 11.