The Apartheid Museum

Story and photos by Lucille Davie

14 April 2003

After a few hours at the Apartheid Museum you will feel that you were in the townships in the '70s and '80s, dodging police bullets or teargas canisters, or marching and toyi-toyiing with thousands of school children, or carrying the body of a comrade into a nearby house.

This extraordinarily powerful museum, certain to become one of Johannesburg's most important tourist attractions, has become an obligatory stop for tourists and residents alike.

The Museum, with its large blown-up photographs, metal cages and numerous monitors recording continuous replays of apartheid scenes set in a double volume ceiling, concrete and red brick walls and grey concrete floor, is next to the Gold Reef City Casino, five kilometres south of the city centre

The museum's director, Christopher Till, says: "It is appropriate that the first apartheid museum in South Africa should open in Johannesburg, where at the turn of the century there was a convergence of people for a range of different reasons.

"Black people were displaced from the land through colonial wars and the imposition of poll taxes, and white farmers were displaced through the Anglo Boer War," says Till.

The museum came about as part of a casino bid seven years ago. Bidders were obliged to include a social responsibility project, and the winning consortium indicated that they would build a museum.

"R80-million was committed to the building of the museum by the consortium," says Till. "The consortium is committed to the running costs of the museum for a further two years, by which time they would have spent around R100-million on the project."

The Museum occupies approximately 6 000 square metres on a seven-hectare site which consists of natural recreated veld and indigenous bush habitat containing a lake and paths, alongside its stark but stunning building.

"The synergy between the natural element and the building finish of plaster, concrete, red brick, rusted and galvanised steel, creates a harmonious relationship between the structure and the environment," says chairman of the Museum board, John Kani.


Capturing that moment of reconciliation: Nelson Mandela, wearing the Number 6 jersey, hands over the William Web Ellis trophy to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar. South Africa had just won the 1995 Rugby World Cup - and much more: finally, it seemed, the country had come together as one.

A multi-discipliniary team of curators, filmmakers, historians, museologists and designers has been assembled to develop the exhibition narrative which sets out by means of blown-up photographs, artefacts, newspaper clippings, and film footage, to graphically animate the apartheid story.

Tickets for the Museum are plastic credit-card size cards indicating either "Non-white" or "White", and with one in your hand, you know you have begun a harrowing journey.

As you swing through the turnstile on your historical journey from the early peoples of South Africa to the birth of democracy in the country, cages greet you, and inside the cages are blown-up copies of early identity cards, identity books and the hated passbooks and racially tagged identity cards.

The rest of the Museum is just as graphic:

  • A large yellow and blue police armoured vehicle, nicknamed a "casspir", in which you can sit and watch footage taken from inside the vehicle driving through the townships.

  • Dangling from the roof, 121 nooses representing the political prisoners hanged during apartheid.

  • A June 16, 1976 room with a curved wall of monitors showing footage of that day from around the world.

  • A cage full of dreadful weapons that were used by the security forces to enforce apartheid.

  • Footage of a remarkable 1961 BBC interview with Nelson Mandela when he was in hiding from the authorities, as well as footage of prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd addressing a crowd in English, explaining how the country could be happily ruled only when the races were separated.

At times you feel overwhelmed by the screens and the sound and the powerful images they are projecting. The Museum leads you through room after room in a zigzag of shapes, some with tall roofs, some dark and gloomy, some looking through to other images behind bars or cages that make it clear that apartheid was evil.

And just when you feel you can't tolerate the bombardment of your senses any longer, you reach a quiet space, with a glass case which contains a book of the post-apartheid Constitution, and pebbles on the floor.

You can express your solidarity with the victims of apartheid by placing your own pebble on a pile. You'll then walk out into a grassland with paths which take you to a small lake - you'll need this reflective time.

There is also a recording studio in which visitors can leave their experiences under apartheid, if they had any, for others to hear.

"It is not only important to tell the apartheid story, but it is also important to show the world how we have overcome apartheid. There certainly is a lesson for other countries, and this will be related through the complexity and sheer power of the installations," explains Till.

The displays in the Museum are ongoing and incomplete - the history of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is still to be displayed; personal stories will continually be included; the role of Helen Suzman in South Africa's history is to be expanded.

"The overriding message is to show local and international visitors the perilous results of racial prejudice and how this, in the case of South Africa, nearly destroyed the country and in so doing destroyed people's lives and caused enormous suffering," says Kani.

An architectural consortium consisting of five leading architectural teams was assembled to design the museum. "The building is a triumph of design, space and landscape fused into creating a building of international significance," says Kani.

Till agrees. "The building itself has power, which is what is needed to put across the powerful message the Museum has to offer. It is the most important public building to be built in the last 20 years."

Till says the response so far to the Museum has been "enormously encouraging. One of the people involved in the Holocaust Museum in Washington has seen our Museum, and responded by saying we have achieved something special here".

Source: City of Johannesburg web site

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In cages, blow-ups of the hated 'passbooks'


121 nooses recall political prisoners hanged during apartheid


'Segregation is exactly where it belongs - in a museum'
Visiting the Museum
The Apartheid Museum is open on Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am to 5pm. Entrance is R25 for adults and R12 for pensioners and students. Guided tours can be arranged by phoning (011) 496 1822. The Museum is on the corner of Gold Reef and Northern Parkway Roads. Take the Booysens offramp on the M1 south, and follow the signs to the Museum.

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