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Visiting the Apartheid Museum of Johannesburg

Visiting the Apartheid Museum of Johannesburg

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.

March 1, 2009Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 2

Updates from Africa 2

at bus station in johannesburg, so much has happened i cant really explain.  this is a very different place

we are the most popular people in johannesburg because we’re the only non-South Africans here and we live next door to barack obama. everybody loves us.

its very weird going to the white mall and the black mall, and being directed to the white areas because we’re white and being told to avoid the black areas.  apartheid is over but its very much a part of life here.  the whites especially are scared about losing their property, their jobs, their admission chances at universities, to blacks, as we learned saturday night at a white bar built into a shopping mall. the waitress there, renata, said things that out of any american mouth would be unbelievably racist. but i dont think the concept of racism exists here. or, if it does, its a very different type of racism, like black racism toward whites in the united states. but its more than an awareness of race–everyone talks about it,all the time.

take the proprietors of the guest house we’re staying at.  very nice people.  sara is a mozambiquan portuaguese-speaking indian, and her husband is as well. they have an adorable 4-year-old daughter.  the second day we were here we told them that we had gone to a place called the Carlton Centre to shop that morning.  the husband told us we were silly to go there, it was too dangerous.  now, call me ignorant, but the Carlton Centre was a bright, modern shopping mall with a clean food court, thousands of shoppers and festive christmas lights adorning the escalators.  i didn’t feel the least bit out of place, let alone in danger.  i didn’t even feel like an outsider. well, apparently (i had to remember this because i didnt notice it at the time), Carlton is a black neighborhood and only blacks shop at that mall.  so we asked where we could go that day, and sara’s husband told us he’d drive us to a place called Eastgate.  so we got in the car with him and drove to Eastgate, and the first thing we noticed when we got inside was that EVERYONE was white.  he hadn’t said “i’ll take you to a white mall” but he had suggested it, even going so far as to tell us that we would “Feel more comfortable there with other white people.”  As it turns out, I felt weirder at Eastgate than I did at Carlton…it reminds me of the sixth sense;  ‘I see white people’

Sara had a friend from Brazil come over and the two of them and Codrin conversed in Portuguese for a while.  From what I understood of the conversation, at one point she complained about the Chinese being too…something, I don’t remember.  The openness with which she expressed racial discontent surprised me.

There is a 15-year-old boy at the guest house named Antonio, who is also Mozambiquan but is black.  He wakes up at 6 in the morning, prepares the rooms, sweeps the house, cleans the kitchen, opens and closes the gate (it always has to be locked from the inside), wakes up at 2 in the morning if need be to let guests in, helps with the construction outside (they’re building an extension with more rooms) and sleeps on a cot right outside the front door in case he’s needed. he does all this for a salary of 400 rand a month ($40).  Codrin tells us this is a good salary in South Africa–the average is R250–but Antonio, the nicest kid, seems to be working beyond his pay.  He has family back in Mozambique where he is sending his wages.  He only speaks Portuguese, but Codrin speaks it and Ioana and I only speak in cognates, but we manage to communicate.  He was thrilled listening to Rianna on Ioana’s iPod…he really is a sweet kid.  What’s sad is the way Sara’s husband treats him.  He was talking to Ioana, and Antonio walked in and Sara’s husband said “Antonio, you look uglier now that you’ve shaved your head”…and generally he treats Antonio like a servant or worse, a slave.  It’s quite sad but there’s nothing we can do about it but slip Antonio a generous tip, which we will.

Codrin and I went to the Emperor’s Palace casino on Friday night and played poker from 10pm to 3am, and blackjack until 7am.  Codrin lost about $300 and I made $160…I don’t think we’ll be going back any time soon.  It was a very lively casino, though, and a lot of fun. Poker players were terrible.

Ioana and I cooked dinner last night…sausages we bought at Eastgate and fried potatoes.  It was delicious.

The interesting thing about Johannesburg is that it’s not a tourist city, so everything here is built for and by the locals.  It gives Johannesburg authenticity that you don’t get when visiting most cities.  All the tourists go to Cape Town and Durban, and from what Renata tells us, most whites are trying to do everything to get out of Johannesburg because there are no jobs here for whites.  I think she exaggerates a bit when she says she thinks the country is going to way of Zimbabwe, but it will be interesting to see how the country unfolds.

But anyway, Johannesburg is a large, spread out urban sprawl with hundreds of neighboorhood districts—Kensington, Brumer, Hyde Park, etc–but no neighboorhoods.  Everyone stays in their complexes and doesn’t go out at night because it’s too dangerous. When they do go out they go to only one or two establishments that they know.  THere are no bar streets, no small neighborhoods with culture, no outdoor cafes, no markets.

The only thing we did find was a small Chinese neighboorhood about a kilometer from “Oriental Village”–an Asian-themed flee market where mainly whites shop.  We walked and found where the Chinese who work there actually live, which is a lively little neighborhood with restaurants, tea houses and local supermarkets.  We had to go out of our way to find it and I doubt any guide books direct people there.  I get the sense that neighborhoods like that are few and far between in Johannesburg.

I’m glad we were forced into staying another 3 days here.  It gave me a good idea of what South Africa is, how people feel about the country and eachother, and it will give me good perspective when we go to Cape Town, where a lot of these issues won’t be as prominent.

I switched keyboards halfway through this email, because the shift key was broken on the old one.  Not going to go back and edit.

We’re off to Gaborone in abuot an hour.  I’ll send another update when I can.

December 15, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More