Embarrassingly, it takes an American to get me to visit places in South Africa that I would immediately seek out were I not living in South Africa.
Amanda is in South Africa gathering data for her masters dissertation which, to the best of my understanding, involves interviewing people who have undergone traumatic experiences. I don’t envy her, but I do admire the work she does in studying human trafficking. She is only here for eight weeks, and then back to the States with her information and notes to write up the thesis.
Given this context, it is understandable that Amanda didn’t want to waste time visiting the Silly Buggers Museum (which is unfortunate because I hear that it is very nice). She wanted to visit the memorial to that political system that no-one in South Africa ever agreed with. Funny how a system like that could come into being with absolutely no support. I suppose everyone who thought it was a good idea must have died or emigrated (or both).
If you haven’t been to the Apartheid Museum, and you live in South Africa, I hope your excuse is that you live in Hotazel and have never been to Johannesburg (and only have a vague understanding of the concept of city).
I suppose that’s a little hypocritical of me, considering I visited it for the first time on Sunday and live in Johannesburg. I’ll revise the statement slightly.
After reading this post, I hope you will be making your way to the Apartheid Museum within the next month, provided you live in South Africa and are not holed up in some god-forsaken dorpie in a desert somewhere.
The Apartheid Museum is a beautiful place. Using simple, minimalist architecture it conveys a sense of serenity and peace. Yet there is also an undercurrent of something heavy waiting within. Something these plain concrete walls and tranquil water-features conceal furtively.
As I bought my ticket and entered the museum, a cold foreboding passed over me.
If the architecture of the place doesn’t have an impact on you, then the entrance can’t possibly fail to.
Each person who pays for entrance is given a ticket labelled “White” or “Non-white.” The tickets are handed to you arbitrarily, regardless of your actual genetic heritage. There are two entrances to the museum, and you don’t get to choose which one to enter via. The ticket you have chooses for you. Random. Arbitrary. Ridiculous.
The statement is very powerful, as the first part of the museum keep the “whites” and “non-whites” separated. I wondered whether the museum would be entirely separated like this, and whether I’d be reunited with my wife before leaving.
This initial impact is a lasting one, and the intensity of the place persists throughout.
I found the museum to be brutally honest about South Africa’s turbulent history and, more remarkable, brutally honest about the current state of the nation. Although apartheid has been dismantled, not everyone has been emancipated.
The display on the part women played during the struggle movingly illustrates to what extent women went in fighting against the social ills of the time. I was impressed that the display ended by highlighting the inequities that many women in South Africa still suffer, despite the change in government. The crimes against women that are rife in this country were listed. These things are realities in our country, and the curators of the museum were not afraid of pointing them out. The apartheid museum is not propaganda vehicle of the New South Africa, shouting out “Rah! Rah! Apartheid is vanquished! Look how perfect everything is now.”
This wasn’t the only place where the museum gave a balanced representation of the political events which had occurred. For this I am grateful, and inordinately impressed. It kicked any cynicism I might have felt about South Africa squarely in the buttocks.
We were at the museum for roughly three hours, and I didn’t even look at everything. I was, however, quite emotionally drained by the time I left. Of particular poignancy to me was the short twenty minute film on the 80’s, shown in the auditorium
The film depicted the civil unrest of the time, and the events leading up to and during the declared state of emergency. It depicted a very violent, sadistic time. People rioting, and fighting. Police cracking down on them, generally using gratuitous force. It was distinctly unpleasant to watch, yet completely compelling. I couldn’t get up and walk away, despite the senseless acts.
It was poignant to me because I a child living in South Africa during this time, and knew nothing of these events.
I had a vague idea of this “state of emergency” thing. I vaguely understood that black people were treated differently to me, and other people with fair skin. At the time I had no idea that white people were doing those things to black people. Obviously, the state controlled media was doing a good job in those days.
I was appalled by and ashamed of my ignorance. Certainly as a child, I could have done nothing to alter these events but I still felt mortified about my past as I watched the film.
The Apartheid Museum was an emotional rollercoaster. It brought me to the verge of tears but, annoyingly, my male socialised conditioning blockaded the tear-ducts. It made me laugh out loud at the absurd pontifications of the apartheid government officials and politicians (those natives must carry passbooks, which provide a handy folder to store all of their documents, which they are liable to otherwise lose — being a careless bunch of barbarians and all). It made me feel very sombre. It made me feel very positive about South Africa.
We’ve come a long way. We’ve got a long way to go. At least we’re being honest about it.
Later, Angie and I discussed our feelings about the museum and we reckon that every politician currently in office should spend three hours at the Apartheid Museum. It’ll help them remember why they are in office in the first place, and what they should be trying to achieve there.