Today we visited the Apartheid Museum, which provoked deep thinking about apartheid and its legacy. I found that the museum’s ability to interweave stories of life under apartheid — the experience of solitary confinement for a political prisoner, the feeling of walking under a sign marked nie-blankes (non-whites), the intensity of the streets of Soweto filled with children’s visions for justice, and more — encouraged its guests to probe their understandings of racial injustice and ask difficult questions.
As an example, rhetoric of “safety” was a theme which was traceable throughout the museum. Since the first arrival of the Dutch, whites in South Africa have used dislocation and dispossession as instruments of control, and countless personal narratives shared throughout the museum reaffirmed this. In the twentieth century, this strategy remained central. From the demolition of slums in the 1930s to the eviction of black South Africans from vibrant neighborhoods like Sophiatown, the government suppressed the power and autonomy of black South Africans by controlling where they could and could not live. In addition to generating rootlessness, the government ensured that each emergent black community would remain poor by depriving its residents of equal economic opportunity. And yet, slums and informal settlements were (and sometimes still are) condemned as being unsafe in an endemic way, one that blames family structure or moral degeneracy rather than addressing the structural causes that have created inequality. When Henrik Verwoed justified his plans for apartheid before a massive white audience as shown via video clip in the museum, he declared that his ideas would preserve safety for future generations. I was left thinking: in what ways do leaders today both generate and condemn the crime that accompanies inequality? How else does rhetoric about safety divide us?
(photo from https://www.apartheidmuseum.org/about-museum-0)
This is only one of many concepts that the museum probed. The hours we spent in the museum raised questions about the purpose of retributive justice, the power of propaganda, the nature of activism, and more. As we had lunch in the cafe after our visit, we had much to discuss and learned from one another’s observations. Without a doubt, the museum laid an original and thought-provoking groundwork for the rest of our time in Johannesburg and beyond.