Apartheid Museum: tourism, memory & historical justice

Since the first moment you cross the first door you start to “feel” … The Museum of Apartheid, in Johannesburg, is impressively explicit and its museography, exhibitions and setting are SO well accomplished that when they give you the entrance ticket you get in tune with the seriousness of the topics to be discussed.


What impacts most of the entry receipt is not that it has a number, nor that it says the name of the museum, it’s that it evokes the segregation mechanisms used in the past, by randomly cataloging the visitors between “white” and “not white”, thus leading them to have an experience of access to facilities based on a similar discrimination that was experienced in the time and context that is intended to expose.


After catching your attention and emotionally preparing you from the access point, you go to an outdoor exhibition that takes advantage of the path of the main building to present the factors that make us appropriate this story and, at the same time, present the bases or background that gave rise to racism in South Africa and its roots within this society.


The journey strictly establishes the point that we are all equal, from our origin and it does so by guiding the visitor towards identification with common characteristics with the first humans, based on affirmations that in essence could be summarized as: Welcome, you came back home, this is the origin of everyone and therefore also yours. You carry it inside you, in your genes and you’re from where you are because our ancestors were walkers, thinkers, fighters, creatives, gatherers … and they were not only constantly evolving, but also in constant movement.

The museography leads us to question ourselves: if we are all equal, where do discriminations based on differences come from and how did they escalate to levels such as those reached in regimes like as Apartheid?


Then it invites us to understand that these levels of racism did not develop from one day to another and their beginnings go back to long before independence and start from the arrival of the Dutch colonists to the coasts of what is now South Africa and Namibia towards the year 1652. The reality is that while this nation was being formed, both the birth of a remarkable racial differentiation and a struggle for equality and respect for the rights of the oppressed developed.


Afrikaner or Borean immigrants known as “voortrekkers” or “pioneers” migrated again to find the best areas, and in those, to find who for decades and centuries had inhabited them. They appropriated land and resources and little by little they and their descendants created a ‘welfare state’ (exclusively for themselves and their peers) based on oppression.


Those who inhabited those lands came to be measured, photographed and exhibited in ‘the name of science’, because they were considered the most primitive living specimens of homo sapiens. Different “levels of humanity” were created and the hunter-collectors who had occupied the same lands for thousands of years were not only stripped of their property, but also of their dignity under a very simple objective: The white minority conserving power.


European immigrants and their descendants represented only 20% of the population. As they were less, they designed a series of mechanisms that guaranteed the domination and conservation of power, evidencing it in the structure of society that was divided between what was only for them (the whites) and what was allowed for the rest of the population (non-whites: Lets say blacks, mixed and immigrants, organized under that same scale).
This is how the modern history of South Africa and practically the entire African continent was written.

This is how the systematization of oppression, violence, violation of human rights started …

In the midst of shock, because for me it wasn’t the same to hear it as to see the images that so crudely documented it, I realized that this is how the story of my own country, MY history, started. And I was conscious of how I appropriated the pain, I appropriated the humiliation, I appropriated the shame to feel that I’m also the result of these systematizations, that I’m the result of those violations, and that my blood – and probably also yours – serves as evidence of those ravages. This was no longer the past of a country that I visited for the first time, what I was presented in this museum was a fragment of the history that belonged to me …

What was the Apartheid?

Apartheid was a system of segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 until the 1990s (practically the other day!) In which EVERYTHING, from state policies to urban organization and codes of human relations, was based on in the racial classification according to the appearance, social acceptance or ancestry of the individual with a simple objective: That the white minority conserve their privileges, comforts, wealth and welfare state.
The evolution of the emotion of racial superiority, added to the fear of losing power was the context in which occurred:
1) The massive and systematic violation of human rights
2) Racial discrimination as a mechanism to maintain social cohesion and perpetuate power
3) The oppression and extermination of the “original towns”

The most frequented spaces and areas of the city were divided, and the main cities were highly signposted so that it was clear whom could use what.

Walls like the old fortress on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg turned their weapons inward and, instead of preventing the arrival of intruders, fixed their attention on those beings who had dared to interfere with the status quo dictated by Apartheid. Multiple spaces were restructured and turned into intimidating infrastructures of confinement in it was a mix of those who deserved to be there for their criminal acts, others that had done nothing more than the logical thing: To demand that human rights be respected and that racism be ended that at that time, ruled South Africa. The measures taken included actions that were not “relative” or “subjective” and already by the 1970s the ravages of Apartheid were considered by the United Nations to be “crimes against humanity”.

From the horrors of Apartheid emerged multiple relevant figures, subjects with enough vision and conviction to sacrifice their physical integrity, their freedom and even their lives in order to modify the “status quo”. There is a whole part of the Apartheid Museum dedicated to meet them: popular leaders, academics, workers, students … And among these were not only those who were discriminated against: at different times there were also voices of ‘Afrikaners’, those South African whites with European ancestry, who left their comfort zone to question the atrocities committed by the regime.

Now, within that whole set there was a profile that stood out and obviously, it was Nelson Mandela. Lawyer, activist, revolutionary … A lot can be said about this individual, but the qualities that most impressed me were that of PEACE MAKER and RECONCILER. A person who, within all available mechanisms, chose to use non-violent methods of protest in his years of imprisonment and abuse. A good part of the museography is dedicated to his figure, recognized for having occupied three large and very different roles: lawyer who fought for equality, political prisoner and finally, the first black president of his nation.

Out of all the scrap of the dark past that represents the era of Apartheid in South Africa, a nation re-emerged full of wounds, traumas, scars and divisions many of which, sadly, are still present (to a greater or lesser extent) . I, in the middle of 2019, was an auditory witness of them and if I am honest at some point I even cried with frustration (I told you that this topic touched me deeply). Knowing the recent history of South Africa hurt me a lot and made me even more aware of the importance of the “what” we educate because it’s of little use to have schools if they teach hatred and discrimination, it’s of little use to have development if it’s based on oppression and There is little point in promoting culture if it leads to the systematization of the violation of human rights.

The Apartheid Museum is a space that guides tourism, both local and foreign, towards memory and historical justice. It is a powerful example of how a very complex topic can be taken and oriented towards the analysis, study and reformulation of the narrative around a convulsive past and the creation of conscience and a spirit of reconciliation.

This is one of ‘those’ museums that you can’t go with revolted hormones, nor with sensitivity to the surface. It’s one of those that manages to masterfully teach you a dark fragment of the recent past. One that not only must be visited, but return whenever possible

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