On Thursday, we decided we would visit the Apartheid Museum, so we had a gentle start to the day before driving across Johannesburg to get there. Interestingly, the museum came into being as a result of the process for granting casino licenses. To be awarded a license, bidders had to demonstrate how they would improve tourism and the local economy, which is why the museum neighbours a casino.
The first sense you get of the impact of apartheid is at the ticket office, when you are handed these tickets…
…and you’re forced to use separate entrances to the building. As you pass through the opening exhibition, you are bombarded by an astonishing array of signs designed to keep the races apart. The sheer volume of signage required is actually a demonstration of just how artificial the segregation policy was.
When we got to the museum proper, the first thing we encountered was a temporary exhibition on the life of Nelson Mandela. This was very interesting and covered everything from his being named Rolihlahla at birth to being given the name Nelson by his teacher on his first day of school, through his growing political awareness and founding of the ANC youth wing, all the way up to his inauguration as president. As a Glaswegian, I have always regarded it as a matter of civic pride that we were one of the first places in the world to name a street in his honour.
Mandela was awarded the freedom of the city in 1981 and the following year Glasgow’s mayor launched a global petition for his release from prison which was ultimately signed by 2,500 city mayors worldwide. In 1986, St. George’s Place was renamed Nelson Mandela Place. Largely because it was the postal address of the South African High Commission in the city.
After the Mandela exhibition, we went to the main apartheid exhibition, which didn’t pull any punches. Although apartheid was officially implemented by the National Party government elected in 1948, the seeds of the policy had been sown much earlier through the housing policies that existed for, in particular, native africans who had migrated to the cities in search of, usually manual, employment in heavy industry. Segregation was strictly enforced through an ever expanding set of legislation which began with the pass laws. Everyone was classified according to what an assessor determined their race was, but appeals were possible…
The growth of the black political consciousness in response to these unjust laws and the absence of the vote, led to the creation of political movements, most famously the African National Congress. The ANC was promptly banned by the South African government and it became a crime to be a member.
Apart from an examination of the roots of apartheid, there were also various videos of newsreels from the various periods. The one I remember from my youth was the Soweto Uprising when schoolchildren began protesting at the government’s decision to start teaching many subjects in Afrikaans, regardless of what the teaching language had been previously. This had the effect of stunting the studies of many bright and capable students. Much as if the British government decided it would start delivering lessons in French. Police fired tear gas at the schoolkids and, when they did not disperse, started firing live rounds into the crowd. There’s an iconic photograph from that first day of protests that shows a young man carrying the body of a 13 year old boy, Hector Pietersen, accompanied by his sister.
As a schoolboy myself at the time, I couldn’t imagine the terror these kids were facing, And it continued for another 15 years.
The exhibition overall is extremely powerful and, I would think, a must-see if you are going to put South Africa in context. Particularly moving was the last video room, where they show actual footage of victims’ families confronting their relatives’ murderers. It’s both riveting and chilling. The museum says they expect a visit to take between one and a half and three hours. We spent four and a half hours there.