By the time we visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg we had already been in South Africa for three weeks. The entire trip has been centered on life during, before, and after apartheid. In the fall, we compared the tactics used by organizations fighting against the Apartheid regime such as, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) to those utilized during the Civil Rights Movements by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). With three weeks of in country immersion and the pre-departure course under my belt I felt I had a pretty decent understanding of the system of Apartheid and the struggle that ensued to topple an inhumane regime. No amount of readings or class discussion could ever amount to the effectiveness of spending two hours in the Apartheid Museum. While I provide a critical reflection of my experience below, I think it is important to note that to fully comprehend and read every single plaque within the museum would have required at least three more visits.
The layout of the museum begins by placing visitors in the mindset of the Apartheid system. On our entrance tickets you are assigned either “White” or “Non-White” and this assignment dictates what door you enter the museum through. Upon entering you are greeted with a barrage of images of South African citizen’s photos, black passbooks (required by The Black (Natives) Laws Amendment Act of 1952), and a list of laws that were enacted under the Apartheid Regime in order for the white minority to maintain control over the black majority. Following the entrance guests typically enter into a section on segregation which explains the history of Colonialism in South Africa. However, I was in for a special treat as there was a temporary Nelson Mandela exhibit on display. I will confess that I spent most of my time on this exhibit soaking in every word written about a man I have long admired. Following the Mandela and Segregation exhibits I forged into the section exploring life under Apartheid. This section of the museum made me sick to my stomach and several times throughout the exhibit I had to find a corner in which I could pull myself together and dry my tears. I am not sure how one could make it through this section without having a visceral reaction. The images of children being beaten, starved, houses being razed down simply for being too close to whites, the lifeless bodies of protesters was overwhelming and gut wrenching. Reading about the Sharpeville massacre or the Soweto uprisings is far different than seeing images and hearing first person accounts of the events.
I speedily made my way out of the Life under Apartheid section to the Reconciliation portion of the museum. As an International Relations major intending to go work in the Human Rights field, South Africa’s process of reconciliation is particularly fascinating. Following his election in 1994, President Mandela created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1996 and Archbishop Desmond Tutu was named Chairman. There were three branches of the TRC goals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: The Human Rights Violations Committee, The Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, and the Amnesty Committee. In the world of Human Rights, the TRC is a unique case study as it focuses on restorative justice rather than retribution. Within the museum there was a 40 minute video in which we were able to watch testimonies heard by the Human Rights Violations Committee. I lasted a whopping three minutes before I could no longer hear about the torture endured. As I left the video in tears, I wondered how those on the committee and the journalists covering the Human Rights Violations Committee could keep showing up to work and bearing witness to recounts of atrocity. In an effort to unite a divided South Africa, Mandela insisted that both sides of the Apartheid struggle be investigated, highlighting that it was not just white South Africans who were guilty of acting unjustly. As a result Mandela’s own the party the ANC, was investigated by the TRC. The TRC’s final report condemned both sides for violence perpetrated during the Anti-Apartheid struggle. However, not a single a person was prosecuted by the TRC. Reconciliation was chosen rather than persecution. However this has left South Africa as a nation still divided.
The lack of prosecution disillusioned many South Africans as they felt that justice was never served and that criminals should have been prosecuted for their crimes. When visiting our class former exile, activist, journalist, and poet Zenzile Khoisan recounted his time serving on the TRC. He stated that he believed the TRC ultimately failed because it never prosecuted anyone and only gave the appearance of reconciliation. In the Cape Town Jewish Museum there is a quote by Waldemar Ginsberg a Holocaust survivor who said “what is not acknowledged cannot be healed.” Much like Germany with the Nazis, South Africa has not shied away from remembering its past and making sure that the memories and legacies of both victims and activists are remembered. But the question then becomes, is remembrance enough to heal old wounds? During his first year in office, Mandela called South Africa a “rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” However can a nation really be at peace with itself when there is discontent with the process of reconciliation and people of color are still dealing with the effects of Apartheid (lack of socioeconomic upward mobility, health and education disparities etc…)?