South Africa: Visit to the Apartheid Museum

On our last day in South Africa, we visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Two days prior we had been to the Constitutional Court; during that visit we got a sense of the future of the country and the transformative nature of their constitution. With our visit to the Apartheid museum we looked to the past and marveled at the incredible transformation South Africa has already undergone.  As we entered the Apartheid museum, we were issued small, laminated pass cards with different racial classifications printed in English and Afrikaans. We passed through metal gates and partitioned corridors as a recreation of traveling during Apartheid. Along the path up the museum there are images of significant anti-Apartheid advocates cast in mirrored glass, unlabeled and pictured walking up the slope as if on a pilgrimage. Among them we spotted George Bizos, the distinguished human rights lawyer we had met just a few days before.

The Apartheid museum itself is full of arresting images and passionate voices. The walls move with the televised faces of anti-Apartheid activists giving interviews and speeches from their own time. There are harsh turns and dark spaces which open up to show the artifacts of Apartheid: an assault vehicle used to suppress riots and hold large groups of arrested people, a solitary prison cell, and the actual guns fired on civilian protesters. Accompanying each of these artifacts is a voice, either televised or through radio, speaking not as a retrospective history lesson but from the time period itself, remarking on what was happening. There is one video that is particularly gripping: the very first television interview of Nelson Mandela, where he hints that the ANC movement, which had until then been nonviolent, may need to explore other tactics to bring about change. Moving through the Apartheid museum doesn’t feel like walking through a static exhibit, but more like moving along with a throng of people, all speaking passionately, all moving themselves. The museum was our last stop on the trip. To some it felt sobering; to others, inspirational. We seem to have felt that duality all along the trip: how the aspirations of the nation live alongside its bitter realities, and how everything in the country is both forward-looking and backward-looking, from how the people speak of race to the provisions of the constitution itself.

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