from Africa in Transition

South Africa’s Apartheid Museums

March 30, 2012

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Sub-Saharan Africa

South Africa

Over last weekend, my research associate, Asch Harwood, and I visited two of South Africa’s best known apartheid museums, the Apartheid Museum, between Johannesburg and Soweto, and the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto itself. The first, by far the largest, seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of apartheid, including its roots in the practice of racial segregation and exploitation going back hundreds of years. The second is more specifically focused on the 1976 Soweto student uprising against an attempt to force Afrikaans as the language of instruction in public schools. (Hector Pieterson was a twelve-year-old demonstrator who was killed.) For an institution of such serious purpose, the location of the Apartheid Museum is quixotic: it is adjacent to an amusement park and hotel and across the street from a gambling casino.

From the curatorial and display perspective, both museums are outstanding. They are reminiscent of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Both follow the currently accepted narrative of events. While there are many complaints that the ANC seeks to rewrite history to marginalize other liberation movements, this does not happen in either of these two museums. Space is also devoted to whites who fought against apartheid.

Perforce, both make extensive use of video footage, especially of events from the 1970’s-1990’s time period. They can reward close study. For example, some show that many of the police – the first line in the enforcement of apartheid – were black. Memory of that reality may influence how some township dwellers view the police today.