I hadn’t known what to expect from the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. I’ve been to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, and spent my time there being moved, and pissed off about the ways in which the museum manipulated me to feel moved. I expected more of the same, and wondered how the experience would differ with a set of circumstances closer in time, further in cultural distance.
I didn’t expect the museum to be set in a casino and amusement park, in the Southern suburbs of Johannebsurg, overlooking a Ferris Wheel and a roller coaster. And I didn’t expect to spend three hours there and fail to make it all the way through the main exhibits.
The museum has an amazing wealth of text and imagery which goes a long way towards helping explain not only the injustices of apartheid and the remarkable movement that over came it. It also goes a long way towards explaining the economics and politics that led to such a virulent strain of racism and nationalism. There’s a striking photo early in the exhibition – four men, filthy, exhausted, resting on their hammers in a Johannesburg mineshaft. One is European, one is Asian, two are African. Understanding that a mining boom had all three groups living and working together in 1900 makes apartheid suddenly much more and much less understandable. Much more, in economic terms, much less in human terms.
The structure of the exhibit has some remarkable transitions. The entrance – which separates my companion and me into white and non-white entrances (we’re both of European descent, but I draw the brown straw) – feels a little forced. But the transition from black and white photos, text and video of talking heads in the 1900-1960 section into the living color of the Soweto riots and the street protests of the 1980s is an amazing contrast. Watching thousands of young South Africans run and chant in rhythm, you have a moment of fear, balanced with a wave of hope, and I found myself wondering what white soliders though as they watched from inside armored trucks. What does it feel like to realize that the system you’ve defended is utterly doomed by racial dynamics and people power?
Beside the miners and the protesters, the image that will stay with me is the two by one meter isolation cell prisoners were held in. They’ve recreated three cells in the space, and pacing for a moment in one was a deeply uncomfortable thing to do. An earlier video reminds us that Mandela was not a saint – indeed, he led the wing of the ANC that sabotaged power plants and mines and was responsible for collateral deaths. But there’s something saintlike about a man who could spend more than a few days in a cell like that and still be able to reconcile with his enemies, instead of wanting to destroy them.