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Apartheid in horrifying detail

A South African museum covers the years in which the government ran the country according to the dehumanizing system of race classification.

Published December 14, 2003

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The screams of children escaping a shower of tear gas and the explosion of bullets launched by police during a peaceful march echo throughout the Apartheid Museum.

The piercing sounds are intended to show what terror and hate really mean.

The museum, an unpainted, unadorned concrete building that resembles a prison complex, offers a terrifying portrayal of the darkest years of South Africa's history.

"The starkness of the architecture reflects the dark days of South Africa," said playwright John Kani, the museum's chairman. "It is a vision of apartheid, a place to follow the honest human drama of this country."

The display of apartheid's arbitrary cruelty begins at the museum's doors.

Visitors are randomly classified as black or white and forced to enter through separate entrances. Under apartheid, families were torn apart when government workers, examining skin color and hair texture, classified some members as different races - white, black or mixed - giving them different sets of rights.

A newspaper article from 1986 hanging on a wall emphasizes the absurdity.

"More than 1,000 people officially changed color last year," it read. But "no blacks became white and no whites became black."

The museum was opened in 2001 after the theme park Gold Reef City decided to expand to include a casino. Local authorities told the owners that a gambling license would be granted only if they contributed to a socially minded project that would benefit the community. The idea for the museum was born, with Gold Reef City footing the $13.5-million bill.

The challenge was to create a museum that was honest but not angry.

"We wanted to create a museum without emotional baggage and political pain . . . to move away from blame-placing," Kani said.

The difficulty in remembering apartheid was in "being honest and at the same time, sensitive. Not to create a hate place that would divide people. Not to undermine the role of all people in the struggle. Not to create a monster out of one section of people and good victims out of the other section. To create something to be proud of," he said.

The almost 50-year history of apartheid is portrayed in detail, using information boards, photographs and film footage. There is even a Casspir, a giant yellow armored vehicle used to patrol black townships. Visitors can climb into it and watch a video showing what those in the vehicle saw as it was driven through the townships.

Tom Lodge, a professor of history and political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the museum faced great challenges.

"The difficulty is in trying to represent something that is bureaucratic, cold and subtle in a way that is dramatic and arresting," he said.

"Apartheid featured massacres, but it was not a diet of daily massacres. Conveying the everyday experience of regulation, humiliation and interference of rude, obnoxious officials who called you scum is difficult."

The chilling bureaucracy behind the subjugation of the population's vast majority is emphasized in a towering wall devoted to a long list of the laws enacted to enforce the system.

Among the walls were the Group Areas Act of 1950, which legislated where racial groups could live and stipulated that blacks were to be allocated only 13 percent of the country's land. Another law passed that year was the Population Registration Act. It required all South Africans to be registered at birth as belonging to one of four specific racial groups, each with a separate set of rights.

Another signature piece of apartheid law was the Immorality Act. It prohibited sexual relations between whites and blacks. A photo shows a group of white men spying on a couple through their bedroom window.

The laws show the "omnipresence and apparent omnipotence" of the system, a plaque says. But they also "testify to the success of thousands of ordinary, individual South Africans evading, deflecting and finding loopholes in the law."

From the ceiling of one room hang 121 nooses representing those executed as political prisoners during apartheid. The room is cold and dim, and has an eerie, macabre feeling. The ropes hang in neat rows, suggesting the systematic brutality and indifference with which the prisoners were treated and executed.

South Africa's history lurched toward more intense violence beginning with the 1976 Soweto student uprisings. The images depicted become increasingly brutal: the burned bodies of those thought to be informers for the apartheid regime, township protests, the mass funerals that followed.

The violent images give way to the pictures of negotiations and emerging democracy in the early 1990s, including the ballot box and Nelson Mandela, the nation's first democratically elected president.

Deciding what to include was difficult, museum officials said.

The museum largely ignores the plight of mixed-race South Africans and Indians, who also suffered injustices under the system, and critics say it glosses over the role of white liberals who risked their lives to fight apartheid.

Lodge said that was a serious omission but in most of the country, "apartheid was most devastatingly felt by blacks."

Kani said the museum wanted to convey a message of reconciliation.

"It is a place for us to find harbor through humanity. We hope for people to come out with a heart that is ready to forgive and a spirit that is ready to continue," he says.

[Last modified December 11, 2003, 12:21:05]

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