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Visiting the Apartheid Museum of Johannesburg

Visiting the Apartheid Museum of Johannesburg

March 1, 2009 10:11 amComments are Disabled

The apartheid museum presents itself as an attempt to educate and renew, not to shock and horrify.  It stands in stark contrast to museums which chronicle other instances of human suffering such as the Holocaust and slave museums;  the Apartheid Museum is designed to provide a path backwards into history, yet simultaneously put history in the present.  It cannot properly be called a post-apartheid museum because its goal is to preserve the memory of apartheid and its living history.  It is a museum of current events as much as it is a museum of the past.  It is a commentary on the present.

The Apartheid Museum presents a barren face and an optimistic interior, perhaps an attempt to recapitulate the horrors of apartheid against a backdrop of renewal and reconciliation.  Emotionless concrete pillars frame the entrance, tall, cold—yet symbolically representative of the pillars of the new South Africa.  Visitors are immediately forced into arbitrary apartheid-era categories of “white” and “non-white” and enter one of two doorways of the museum accordingly.  These first divided entrances are enclosed, claustrophobic, caged, lined with a mosaic of identity cards, an imposing presence of a system of classification and serialization:  Cape Coloured.  Malay.  Manlik.  Vronlik.  Republick van Suid-Afrika.  It is a direct assault on the visitor’s sense of comfort.  There is no escape.  And then the paths merge.

Aside from this first division, the museum embarks on a process of non-racialism, an attempt to explain apartheid without resorting to revisionist, emotionally charged or explosive history.  Visitors are presented with what can only be called an effort at completeness and accurateness—thus, unlike the District Six museum in Cape Town, or the Voortrekker Monument from the other side, the Apartheid Museum makes an effort, in theory, to address the foundational political and economical issues surrounding apartheid, and not merely to extract outrage from its visitors.  This is not to say the museum is emotionally lacking.  But the presentation of exhibits within the museum space allow for discussion, controversy, and emotion without imposing a nationalist, anti-Afrikaner or other agenda; it documents and presents.

That being said, a couple of biases and omissions were apparent in the presentation.  The museum seems to have a heavy pro-ANC bias, and pays little attention to the struggle of the PAC, SACP and other groups against apartheid.  Most notably, the struggle of black activists is presented almost in the complete absence of references to colored and white activists.  The liberation struggle is framed as an opposition to the National Party and only the National Party—thus, a lot of attention is paid to apartheid-era footage of government officials, propaganda from filmmakers reminiscent of Birth of a Nation recalling the Great Trek and the Voortrekker Monument, and facist constructionist films regarding the rise of the Afrikaner right and the nationalist movements that look more like Triumph of the Will and American neo-Nazis than anything else.  What is more surprising is virtually none of the exhibition focuses on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a watershed moment in the reconstruction, although the museum concentrates heavily on the process of political renewal.

However, several exhibits were provocative and succeeded in bringing across the enormity of the efforts of South Africans of all stripes to end apartheid peacefully.  Most notable was the array of television screens showing leaders at the 1993 constitutional convention discussing the process to peaceful political transition, while large windows beneath the screens showed the gallery in the next room with large projections of 1990’s violence during the same process.  It was meant, and it succeeded, to show the struggle of political leaders to overcome the destructiveness, yet appeal, of violence to come together and construct a new government.  This exhibit makes the blown-up photograph of the first free South African parliament, with President Nelson Mandela sitting in the front row, even more poignant:  it highlights the remarkable journey of a country from civil war to revolution to peace in a few short, relatively bloodless years.

And this was the museum’s greatest triumph.  It did not seek to create anger, nor to implicate the past in the travails of the present.  It sought to show the process of power and politics and the promise of South Africa through the audacity of its leaders and liberators.  It is not a museum of the past, says Steven C. Dubin: “That presupposes that museums are exclusively the domain of the defunct and the antiquated, rather being places that can initiate dialogue and stimulate debate about past as well as contemporary issues.”  The Apartheid Museum does stimulate debate, and seeing the museum in the context of the current election makes it even more meaningful.  One of the last exhibits is a glass case filled with newspaper articles—current newspaper articles—regarding politics, the election, and national South African issues.  The most recently dated one was February 27, two days before we visited the museum.  The attention paid to the present, in the context of the past, was the singular goal of the exhibit, and brought the entire museum full circle.  This is not a post-apartheid experiment but a modern exhibit detailing the colorful and diverse range of the South African population, across all political divides, and the promise of the future.

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