DAY 2: Johannesburg, Apartheid Museum


Having a rather underwhelming amount of previous knowledge of South Africa’s political history, and indeed, its history in general provided an interesting (read: uncertain) starting point for a tour of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. What struck me immediately was the over-powering sense of symbolism adopted by the architectural design of the entrance – the seven large pillars of human rights – and also the nature of physically entering the space; each patron is provided with a randomly classified ‘race-pass’ identifying you as either ‘white’ or ‘non-white’. The determination of your pass directed your initial entry into the museum itself which immediately provided me with a sense of what the museum’s designers were attempting to instill in its visitors: a sense that, at every level, segregation was implemented and omnipresent at every platform of society. As one moved through the various installations, covering Mandela, separation, the Apartheid legacy, Afrikaner nationalism, discovering gold, the list goes on… you got the sense that South Africa’s contested historical past would inevitably manifest at a critical juncture in a violent and extremely intensive way.

 Apartheid and the resulting resistance against it were the most obvious by-products of such a contested historical narrative. However, perhaps more importantly for the post-Apartheid generation is the legacy of this focus period and South Africa’s past itself. In other words, how does one create an identity that has forever been conflicted? And how does a nation settle into ‘peaceful’ existence after decades of living in fear, resistance, armed struggle, segregation and disenfranchisement? These themes and ideas provided the sentiment for our guest speakers Anastasia (a white South African with an English speaking father and Afrikaner mother who grew up during Apartheid) and her mother Tish (a white Afrikaner living in a largely ‘coloured’-designated area during Apartheid), and for me offered the most touching and intellectually stimulating context for the information and material in the actual museum. Apartheid culture not only divided society based on race, but politicized people’s consciousness to a point that a mere change of government (to Mandela’s democracy in 1994) was not enough to break the shackles entirely of the Apartheid era. As a matter of explanation: the ANC had based their identity on that of a liberation movement, full of rhetoric and struggle – yet, what happens when this identity is no longer relevant to the new South Africa and a certain amount of political professionalism is expected? This transitional phase, as touched on by Anastasia, spearheaded a disorienting time both for the public and for those who fought for the ‘reality’ of a relative democracy. While vastly improved, the new South Africa undoubtedly holds onto aspects of the Apartheid era, which aren’t so easily washed out by the new creed of equality, truth, justice and freedom.

 To finish with, I’d like to paraphrase an anecdote provided by Anastasia, which she recalls from only a few years ago. A white acquaintance of hers asked Anastasia whether she thought that after Nelson Mandela died, whether the ‘blacks’ would rise up against the ‘whites’ in an orgy of beatings and killings. Obviously, Anastasia was shocked, “I wouldn’t put money on it,’ she replied, almost sarcastically. “What world does she live in?” Anastasia posed herself. But on reflection she thought maybe the falseness lay in her own perception of reality… Regardless of whose vision of the future is accurate, it is worth bearing in mind that while South Africa is dealing, in a tremendous way, with the legacy of Apartheid in their country, it still very much influences, or rather, adds another layer to the conflicted identity of a nation so rich and with no lack of historical contestation. 


The second day of the Seeking Justice tour was characterised by a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Northern Parkway, Johannesburg. The museum was opened in 2001, is the first of its kind and serves to illustrate the rise and fall of apartheid. Just outside the museum is a most striking quote by Former President Nelson Mandela, which reads, ‘To be free is not merely to cast of one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others’. Next to the quote are seven tall concrete pillars of the Constitution of the new South Africa; democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, freedom and respect. As one enters the museum, these linger in the mind to serve as a reminder as to how far South Africa has come since apartheid and eventually democracy.

Apartheid was formally introduced into South Africa in 1948 by the new President of the National Party, Hendrik Verwoerd and his party officials. Verwoerd maintained that apartheid was meant to serve as a symbol of neighbourliness and the acceptance of each other’s differences in society. By 1953, the apartheid state had a formidable set of laws to implement the most thorough system of racial surveillance yet attempted in the country’s history. Some of these laws included the Population Registration Act of 1950 which imposed racial classifications on all citizens. The Group Areas Act of 1950 prohibited people of different racial groups from living in the same areas. The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 prohibited different racial groups from using the same public facilities such as toilets, beaches and parks. Violation of these and any other could result in imprisonment.

There were so many underlying issues that affected non-whites such as poor income, housing and transportation, racial segregation and violation of human rights. This led to, violence, protests and boycotts which were met with violent suppression by the government such as the Sharpeville massacre. The 1960s decade was a year of boom and prosperity for whites in the country but for non-whites, it saw the hardening of apartheid into its most dogmatic and racists form. Political parties were suppressed and eventually banned with most leaders like Nelson Mandela having been charged with reason, arrested and imprisoned. The June 16, 1976 Soweto Student Protest laid the foundation for resistance in South Africa and paved the road to democracy among other significant events. In 1990, Mandela was released after serving 27 years in prison and became the first black president of the democratic South Africa.

Following the transition into democracy, President Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995 ‘to discover the truth about South Africa’s past by giving voice to apartheid victims’. Some of the victims, however, felt that the perpetrators got off lightly and were therefore not satisfied by the process while others were never afforded a chance to participate. One can argue that the wounds of apartheid are still fresh and the transition was not as smooth as many people believe. Apartheid or at least traces of it still linger up until today. Anastazia and her mother, who were invited to talk on their apartheid experiences, noted that almost 20 years after the transition, there still exists forms of racism amongst South Africans, especially whites and high inequality in terms of living standards. Most of the county’s wealth is also still in the hands of white people with many blacks languishing in poverty. As the health of Mandela continues to deteriorate, there is considerable debate as to whether victims will seek retribution or continue with reconciliation in the event of his death.


Having been in Johannesburg for only two days, any reflections or observations I make can only be based on limited experience. Nonetheless, I feel that I can genuinely state that while the official Apartheid regime has ended, contemporary South Africa has still maintained vestiges of the old social structures based on racial segregation. In comparing and observing the official political Apartheid policies with the current societal state of affairs, I refer to Melrose Arch, a shopping mall in Jo’burg, the Apartheid museum and the speakers that presented to us there.

 I begin with Melrose Arch in a somewhat backward fashion, starting with the present. I think this particular mall highlighted to me very starkly that there was still very much present divisions in society based on race. Here I saw my first white South Africans since arriving in the country and I queried it to my roommate, Thembile, a South African student. She explained that although anyone can go, it is basically pointless for most black South Africans because they can’t travel there either by not owning a car or because public transport is limited and more expensive to get there, and also because the prices at the stores are above what they can afford. For me, this was reminiscent of those cunning Apartheid policies that merely “recognized” that cultures were different and so they must be separate.

 Moving then from the ‘now’ to the past, one could observe however that there had been improvements since the ending of Apartheid. The Apartheid Museum exhibited each stage of its implementation and final dismantling. I was struck by its thoroughness in documenting the struggle of the black South Africans for rights and equality. Broadly speaking, I think I could sum up that comparing then and now, black South Africans have achieved equality in voting rights, in the work sphere and land domain. However, as fantastic as the new legislation is, the manifestation of it is still to be fully achieved, and there remain inequalities between the genders that are disturbing.

 This brings me to my reflections on the great speakers, Tish and Anastasia, white South Africans who opposed Apartheid. Their discussion of Apartheid was extremely engaging and moving and what spoke to me particularly was Tish’s observations of the present-day issues facing a post-Apartheid South Africa. I appreciated her frankness in divulging her view that while the new laws were fantastic, their implementation has yet to be fully achieved, particularly in a social economic sense. Economically white South Africans continue to retain the majority of the wealth, while socially a woman has more chance of being raped than completing high school (one in two versus one in three). These shocking statistics reveal not only economic, racial based inequality but also reflect the narrative of gendered discrimination in society, which echoes throughout all history.

 With all of this contemplated, I must honestly conclude that even though regime-led Apartheid has ended, its shadow haunts and divides South Africa’s community and will continue to do so until true reconciliation can be reached. 


Our major outing for the second day in Johannesburg was to the Apartheid Museum. This site was interesting from the outset – each individual ticket was marked as either ‘nie blankes’ or ‘blankes’. This creative decision to emulate the segregation between the white and black people was particularly effective in peaking curiosity and engaging visitors. The museum layout was historically chronological in nature. The pre apartheid section of the museum continued to physically separate the black and white experience. It was notable that there was little discussion about other ethnic groups such as Indians, Asians or Coloureds. This prompted thought – is this narrative being set to meet a certain purpose? 
As one moves through the museum, certain imagery, quotations and even visual media can be seen to support the information being provided.  The way in which this imagery was used often evoked emotion in the viewer. However, I also felt that is was a tool for persuasion in order to convince the viewer of the information being provided. Although images are primary sources of history, the manner of how they are presented has the ability to allow a skewed interpretation. This was most evident in the section of black life under apartheid – it was a complete hallway filled with large images of the black experience. Again, there was no mention, or rather representation of other groups within society who suffered under the apartheid to a similar scale. What about the white sympathisers? What about inter racial relationships? What about the other ethnic groups? Was it simply black and white, so to speak?
From that point it was clear, the history being told within the museum was serving a very particular purpose. All the elements of the museum were setting up the viewer to support the current ANC government. The way the history was written was serving as a tool to enforce and legitimatise ANC rule. 
Another section of the museum was concerning former President, Nelson Mandela. Mandiba’s depiction was of a higher being; tales of his passion, hardship, and forgiveness were truly moving. He was communicated to be the father of hope and unity on South Africa. However, to what degree was this realised in modern South Africa?
The afternoon presentation given by Anastasia and Leticia highlighted the problems still evident within post apartheid society. Anastasia’s account of her involvement with the Soweto community suggested that there was much work to be done to move to a reconciled post apartheid state, namely in education, women and youth development. 
This day only scratched the surface on a plethora of issues still plaguing South African society. I felt that the Nelson Mandela Bridge we saw in the evening summarised the aims of the post apartheid government. Metaphorically it connected the past and present, and it further suggested the continual strive for unity through the display of the national colours. However, the healing and reconciliation of the South Africa is another story, but it will be a chapter well worth the read as time progresses.