After spending our first week in South Africa, in the lovely, leafy suburb of Rosebank, we had booked a taxi to take us to the train station situated in the heart of Johannesburg. The Lonely Planet guidebook had been very clear that there were areas of the central business district that should be considered off-limits to tourists, while others were relatively safe during the daylight hours.
We were in need of some comfortable surroundings and quiet rest after our five weeks in Ethiopia, so we had chosen to stay in Rosebank and leave any sightseeing in J’burg until we returned to catch our flight back to Europe. However, we both felt strongly that we wanted to visit the Apartheid Museum before leaving South Africa, so it was high on our ‘must-see’ list.
The taxi ride to the train station was a real eye-opener; we passed by the attractive Nelson Mandela Bridge, and plunged into the sobering decay of the inner city. It didn’t look like a place we would want to return to and we were only too glad to board the train and head for Cape Town.
We kept putting off our visit to the Apartheid Museum while we waited for our replacement credit cards to arrive, but finally we had only one day left to see it, so we had the Lodge call us a taxi to take us across the city where the museum is located. We were surprised to find pretty ancient vehicle awaiting us outside the gates of Rosebank Lodge, but we enjoyed the company of the friendly black driver while he drove us to the museum.
He seemed surprised when he learned of our destination, but it did spark an interesting discussion about the apartheid era, as he was nearer to our age than most other black South Africans that we had met so far. He talked about the difficult years off official apartheid and the disappointment that he felt with the slow pace of change in the past twenty years.
Our guidebook had given us the impression that it would take only a couple of hours to tour the museum, so we didn’t leave the hotel until early afternoon and by the time we paid the entrance fee it was close to 2:00pm. We were immediately impressed with the exterior of the buildings and the stark beauty of the landscaping. Our tickets randomly assigned us a race and it was suggested that we use the appropriate entrance depending on our classification.
I entered as a ‘coloured’ and Anil used the ‘white’ entrance. It was strange to not be able to enter together, but we had known of this feature of the museum in advance, so we weren’t at all surprised. Once inside, we were able to tour the museum together, but it was clear the planners wanted visitors to get a sense of the ‘apartness’ that apartheid created for decades.
We learned that we were allowed to take photos of the exterior of the building, but not of the exhibits inside. I understand that this is often done because so many people can’t seem to follow instructions not to use the flash on their cameras (it can be very distracting and even damaging to some displays) but I often feel the prohibition is done in order to encourage visitors to spend more as they ‘exit through the gift shop’.
Anil and I have been interested in the history of South Africa for at least the past forty years. We recognized this shared interest when we first met, and after we were married we even joined the Edmonton chapter of the ‘Free South Africa’ committee and regularly attended their monthly meetings. We have never forgotten some of the films that we saw there, most made illegally and smuggled out of the country for fear of reprisals to the filmmakers.
Over the course of the intervening years, we have seen dozens of commercial films relating to South Africa, read many books and excitedly watched Nelson Mandela give his first speech to the nation following his release from prison. For that reason, much of what was presented inside the museum was not new to us, but that didn’t make it any less enthralling. If anything, it rounded our knowledge considerably, as most of the displays were photographic in nature.
We took such a great deal of time, examining the photographs and reading the accompanying texts that we almost completely lost track of time. We did take a break midway through our visit to have a light lunch in the museum’s airy restaurant. In hindsight, we should have come much, much earlier, or eaten our lunch more quickly.
We were little more than half way through the museum’s enthralling displays when the lights suddenly went dark for a few moments. I had just left the room where 131 rope nooses were hung from the ceiling, representing the number of political prisoners who died while incarcerated; and had approached a row of cells that were used for solitary confinement. It was not the place to be when the room when dark.
I was sure that there was a power failure, but the lights did not come back on and we were encouraged to move towards the main exit, using the light coming in through the tall narrow windows to see where we were walking. The museum guides were urging everyone forward and I suddenly realized that it was nearing 5:00pm, closing time. I couldn’t believe the time had passed so quickly, and that we were not going to be able to see the remainder of the exhibits.
We were both more than a little disappointed, especially knowing that we would not be able to return to the museum because we were booked to leave South Africa the following day. We stepped out into the sunshine and I stopped to call the man who had brought us to the museum earlier in the day. It turned out that he was now too far away, and busy with another fare, so we spoke to a taxi driver waiting outside the museum.
He quoted us the same fare that we had paid on the way to the museum, but this time we were in a late model, air-conditioned vehicle, riding back in style and comfort. We chatted a little with the driver, but he wasn’t nearly as animated as our first driver and we were more than a little disappointed not to be able to carry on our earlier discussion.
I’ll end this journal entry by saying that anyone who comes to Johannesburg, must, absolutely must, visit the Apartheid Museum. While the history of apartheid is troubling to say the least, there is nothing grotesque or gory in any of the photos on display. The museum clearly sets out to educate and inform visitors, not shock and repulse them.
It’s clear that South Africa has a very long way to go to achieve equality between the various racial groups, but it’s important that the past is not forgotten. During our two months of travels in South Africa I was surprised to meet young people, born just before all citizens were given the right to vote, who were unaware of many of the policies of apartheid.
It was clear that they were not taught about this period during their schooling, I only hope they take an interest in their country’s history and learn more as responsible adults. I would like to see a similar museum built in Cape Town and Durban, and I think it would be terrific if the high school curriculum included at least one visit to the Apartheid Museum. The past must be understood and acknowledged, in order for the country to heal and move forward.