Apartheid Museum – A honest but unsettling look at South Africa’s History
Apartheid museum South Africa
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South Africa’s Apartheid Museum takes you on a trip through time. It traces the country’s footsteps from the dark days of segregation to democracy and healing.

At the Apartheid Museum, you will find both permanent and temporary exhibits with dramatic photos, press clips, videos, personal artifacts, and moving anecdotes that vividly illustrate life under apartheid.

The permanent exhibits showcase life under the brutal apartheid system and the painful journey the country took to liberation.

For some of us, visiting the Apartheid museum will be very difficult. It is especially difficult for those of us who lived through it. 

In 1994, when South Africa abolished apartheid and had its first democratic elections, I was in my final year of high school. My entire childhood was therefore during the apartheid years. That memory of apartheid is relatively fresh. In fact, I think that if you lived through it, that agonizing memory can never leave you because Apartheid was all we knew. We were indoctrinated. In school we were taught how the white settlers were better than the natives, on tv we watched shows about how white people were superior and people of color were often undermined and denigrated, and wherever we went, we were continually reminded of our proper place in Apartheid South Africa.

There was never any misunderstanding. 

apartheid south african history

So now that it is over, being reminded of that time is painful. Personally, it is not something I wanted to do, but…

Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it – Winston Churchill

While the Apartheid Museum is difficult for non-whites South Africans, I don’t think you need to have lived through that excruciating period to fully appreciate the exhibits.  Any empathetic human being can appreciate it.

Apartheid Museum: Permanent Exhibits

There are permanent and temporary exhibits at the Apartheid museum. These are the permanent exhibits:

pillars of constitution at the apartheid museum

The pillars of the constitution – At the heart of the South African constitution are seven fundamental values: democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect, and freedom.

Race classification – During the apartheid years, South Africans were classified by race. This placed people in one of four groups: Native (Blacks), Colored, Asian, or White. To illustrate this, visitors enter the Apartheid Museum by their allocated race: White or Non-White.

Journeys – The South African gold rush of the late 1880s attracted hundreds of thousands of migrants from all over the world.

In search of wealth, the migrants were racially diverse. This gave rise to the first act of segregation and ultimately apartheid. 

Segregation – Even before apartheid, (and as is evident by the history of South Africa), racial segregation was the official policy of the Union of South Africa. This is what laid the foundation for apartheid. The Segregation exhibit at the Apartheid Museum provides the background of the policy that created the apartheid system.

Apartheid – In 1948, Apartheid was formally enacted. Between 1949 and 1971, the National Party implemented 148 apartheid laws which affected almost every aspect of life in South Africa (for non-whites).

This part of the exhibit examines both the political and social forces that gave birth to apartheid, as well as the political groups that resisted the system.

This is a powerful exhibit that uses life-size photos to bring to life:

  • the tyrannical rule of the National Party 
  • the suffering people endured under its brutal rule.

The turn to violence – From 1959 to 1960, violence escalated in many South African cities. In retaliation, the National Party used brutal force and harsh punishment on demonstrators. During this time, a ban was also placed on the main opposition organizations like the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

Opposition parties went underground. For its part, the ANC formed an armed wing known as Umkhonto we Sizwe. The PAC formed Pogo.

By 1964, the majority of the leadership of the opposition parties had been arrested and jailed.

apartheid south african history

Life under apartheid – With live footage and powerful photos, the exhibits reveal how white South Africans experienced unprecedented prosperity during the 60s, while non-white South Africans lived through extreme hardship.

The homelands – Between 1960 and 1994,  ten homelands were created and over 3.5 million people were forced to move to Black homelands. This was meant to further divide the people of South Africa.

With mass removals, non-whites were forced to relocate to these homelands. The homelands were mostly in isolated and largely uninhabitable areas. 

During the 1970s, the government granted independence to South Africa’s Black homelands. This was a sham because it effectively stripped the citizens of any political rights.

South Africans living in these homelands were unable to make a living and they were forced to work as migrant laborers in South Africa.

The rise of black consciousness – From the 1960s, a new generation of Black youth emerged. Inspired by leaders like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness Movement began. This lead to a political and cultural awakening. The apartheid government did not like this. While in detention in 1977, Steve Biko, who was a clear threat to the government, was murdered. 

Political executions – Under apartheid’s terrorism laws, at least 131 opponents were murdered. Many were tortured to death while in detention. Some committed suicide, however, it is now believed that many of them were murdered. Most executions were carried out at the Pretoria Central Prison.

Sharpeville massacre south african history

The significance of 1976 – The Sharpville Massacre happened on 16 June 1976. This is when schoolchildren (from Sharpeville, Soweto) staged a peaceful protest to demonstrate the introduction of Afrikaans (white man’s language) into their schools. The police retaliated with brutal force. The demonstrators were fired upon by the apartheid police.

The official toll is that 69 children lost their lives, but unofficially, it is said to be as high as 200.

This day will live in infamy and South Africa would never be the same again. It was arguably the beginning of the end of Apartheid.

Violence escalated thereafter and it is estimated about 1000 students were killed in confrontations with the South African police.

Total onslaught – The 1980s brought intense civil unrest in South Africa.

Powerful anti-apartheid organizations, local and international, came together to oppose apartheid. Resistance to apartheid grew inside and outside South Africa.

Roots of compromise – Nelson Mandela, (who was still in prison), invited the South African government to negotiate an end to apartheid.

FW de Klerk became president of South Africa and within months ordered the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela. He unbanned the ANC, PAC, and other political organizations. In 1991, Apartheid laws like the Population Registration Act, the Group Areas Act,  and the Land Act were repealed.

apartheid museum Nelson Mandela's release

Mandela’s release – On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison.

On the brink (of democracy) – The major political parties were unbanned, the country began the process of negotiations and compromise. However, it was still turbulent times. Political violence and deaths did not stop. The exhibit reveals the difficult years between the release of Nelson Mandela to the first Democratic elections in 1994.

Negotiation and settlement – Behind the scenes, there were lengthy negotiations. This ultimately led to the final agreement on a new political order and a National Bill of Rights. In an attempt to curb the widespread political violence, the National Peace Accord was signed in September 1991.

A political compromise was negotiated, and the Sunset Clause helped to break the deadlock in the negotiation process. This clause guaranteed that white civil servants too will have a stake in the new South Africa.

The 1994 elections – South Africa had its first free and fair democratic elections on 27 April 1994. The exhibit reveals footage of voting lines that stretched far at some polling stations.

The elections were largely peaceful, with over 20 million South Africans turning out to vote. The ANC won with 63% of the vote, making Nelson Mandela the president-elect.

Mandela’s presidency – After centuries of colonial and apartheid rule, South Africa finally had its first democratically elected Black President.
A government of national unity was formed, bringing together the ANC and other political forces.

The truth and reconciliation commission – With its purpose to promote reconciliation and forgiveness, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was formed in 1995. It was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The goal of the TRC was as follows:

  • Discover the nature of human rights violations between 1960-1994 in South Africa;
  • Identify the victims with the goal of paying reparations;
  • Grant amnesty to people who fully disclose their role in politically motivated human rights abuses.

The new constitution – A new constitution was promulgated on 18 December 1996. On 4 February 1997, it replaced the interim constitution of 1993.

The South African constitution is one of the most progressive in the world. The South African national anthem is the only anthem that has stanzas for 5 different languages.

A place for healing – The Apartheid Museum was built to showcase the historical events that shaped South Africa. It serves as a beacon of hope for the future. 

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About The Author

Hi! We’re the Cheltens’. We visit South Africa 1-2 times per year. We want to share our experiences with you so that you may make educated decisions when you plan your next trip to the rainbow nation.

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On this day, South Africa reflects on the massacre of school children during the Soweto Uprising of 1976. The featured image is a grim, albeit important reminder of that day. Black students peacefully rose up against the “Afrikaans Medium Decree”, which was issued in 1974. This decree made it mandatory for , ...
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