Friday, April 11, 2008

A visit to the Apartheid Museum

Whilst in South Africa, I managed to take some time away from Henley work to visit the much-publicised Apartheid Museum. I was urged to do so by a number of locals, but I'm not sure how many of them had actually been there themselves. Such is the way - as a Londoner, I would frequently encourage visitors to go and see an attraction I had never witnessed myself.

So, a taxi drive across the city, through the downtown area, past the immense plateaus formed by the waste from the gold mines that Johannesburg, in every sense, is built on, and arrival at the museum at the edge of the Soweto township. Right next to the museum is a large Casino, which is next to a small amusement park, built loosely around the theme of gold mining. The Gold Reef park has maintained the mine shafts, which allow visitors to descend to view a rough approximation of a gold mine.

The concrete architecture of the Apartheid museum reminded me a little of Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. On the day I visited, the museum was experiencing some technical problems (perhaps in connection with the frequent scheduled power outtages that are plaguing the country at present) and not all the exhibits were working. It was still open, but not charging admission.

I spent nearly two hours there, before being ushered out early by very polite security guards. They apparently wanted to fix the technical issues, which had perhaps been made worse by the gigantic thunderstorm that had hit whilst I was inside.

There were several things that remain with me about the museum and its contents:

1. The way in which the absurd logic of apartheid reached down to such mundane levels of what the rest of us take for granted as daily life. Over time, the system's internal logic meant that everything had to labelled, often with (if it weren't for the brutality with which it was imposed and maintained) farcical results. It comes across as a whole society built on fear, an emotion which can never produce anything positive.

2. For the first time in my life, I was viewing authentic exhibits, evidence of oppression, written in my own native language. Growing up in the UK, I find it easy to equate my language with being on the moral high ground. Of course, this is a fallacy. Not only were the British heavily involved in the history of southern Africa, and of the events which produced the leaders who framed the apartheid law, there are perhaps dozens of other instances in my country's history where the language of the oppressor has been my own.

3. It was fascinating to learn about apartheid and draw inspiration directly from the experiences of those who lived in it, fought against it and sometimes died because of it. One of those is Stephen Biko, and there was a very good temporary exhibition about him and his short life.

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