A Trip Back into South Africa’s History

Whether you live in Johannesburg or are just visiting, you should definitely go to the Apartheid Museum. Not only does it fill in many gaps in your knowledge of South Africa’s past, it also brings across a first-hand experience of what Apartheid might have felt like for those who lived through it, something you won’t get a feel for just by reading a history book.

Before you even enter the museum, you will be classified as ‘white’ or ‘non-white’ on your ticket, which will determine which entrance to the museum you must use.

ticket to the apartheid museum in johannesburg

You walk through a cage-like structure with hundreds of replicated ID-cards on display, and you cannot help but feel a chill when you approach the race classification board (which in this case is just a poster, but still!) at the other end.

apartheid museum in johannesburg

From there you are channeled back to the outside where you walk among these mirror-like displays of “ordinary people.” I think this is an effort to contrast the rigid separation of the apartheid state with the free mingling of people of all shapes and races taking place today.

apartheid museum in johannesburg

Some of the most haunting displays are life-size photographs taken during the various uprisings in black townships and the brutal response they elicited from the police.

scenes from the apartheid museum in johannesburg

But the Apartheid Museum also does justice to the muddied nature of history, the fact that not everything is black and white – no pun intended. The extensive Mandela exhibition touched on all details of Nelson Mandela’s life, not glossing over the fact that he did advocate armed resistance and acts of sabotage against the state.

There’s an entire truck in the museum, the kind that was used by police to drive into townships and quell uprisings. It looks more like a tank and gives you a strong sensation of the power of the state versus the oppressed masses, but also of the fear most whites must have felt in the presence of so many black people. When I was driving around Alexandra the other day delivering food to the baseball kids and standing out like a sore thumb in  my big car, I was wondering if the unease I felt was solely based on the fact that everyone warns you not to go into crime-ridden Alexandra, or whether it had to do with being the only white face in a sea of black. You often fear that which you don’t know, and I guess that was partly the driving force of the apartheid movement.

truck at the apartheid museum in johannesburg

This was my last picture of the day, because at this precise point a security guard told me I wasn’t allowed to take any. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to post the ones I took, but I thought I’d share them with you and ask for forgiveness later.

One thing I didn’t fully grasp until our visit there is how recent all of South Africa’s history is. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and became the first democratically elected president of the country in 1994. In 1993, he and then president FW de Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize for their tireless efforts to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy. But during those few years in the early 1990s the country stood on the brink of civil war and it was not at all clear that any kind of consensus on the future of the country could be reached. Egypt today might be an example of how things were going then in South Africa. If you consider that just over 15 years have passed, it is truly remarkable how far the new South Africa has come.

All in all, our excursion to the Apartheid Museum was a very worthwhile visit. You could combine it with a trip to Gold Reef City, which is right next door, but it would be pretty exhausting to do both in one day. Or, if you have older kids, you could let them explore GRC on their own while you’re at the Apartheid Museum. But then again, they should see it too.


More info:
Apartheid Museum
Northern Parkway & Gold Reef Rd, across from Gold Reef City
phone: 011 309 4700
Open Tue-Sun 10h-17h, closed Mon

This article is part of Joburg Expat’s What To Do in Joburg series.  You might also like The Eight Best Sightseeing Tours in Johannesburg and Top 5 Places for History Lovers in Johannesburg.

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