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A Nation's Disgrace on Permanent Display

The World

S. Africa: New Apartheid Museum documents the system of segregation to show country's progress and ensure that such a tragedy is never repeated.

December 01, 2001|ANN M. SIMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — At the entrance to this city's newest museum, visitors are given a ticket randomly assigning them a skin color, then ushered through one of two doors, marked "White" and "Non-white."

Once inside, they file past enlarged copies of identity papers and into a so-called Hall of Classification. There, they confront a placard inscribed with a historic and central piece of South African legislation: the Population Registration Act of 1950, which categorized and segregated the people of this nation.

Promoters of the privately owned Apartheid Museum, which opened Friday, hope that it will serve as a powerful reminder of a national disgrace that should never be allowed to happen again, and as a positive example of how South Africans are coming to terms with their past as they work toward a better future.

"For people who complain and moan and consider that things are not quite as they would like them to be, let them come into this museum to see how lucky we really are," said Christopher Till, 50, the museum director.

Walking through the imposing concrete building, visitors take a journey into South Africa's complex and torturous past. Photographs, film clips, text blocks and artifacts portray the events and human stories born of the system of state-sanctioned racial discrimination called apartheid.

From one ceiling, 121 nooses dangle in memory of the people hanged under apartheid. Elsewhere, museum-goers can experience the claustrophobia of solitary confinement by entering replicas of prison cells.

Re-Creating the Feeling of Separation

The museum is opening just as South Africa's government-created Truth and Reconciliation Commission is about to go out of business. Over seven years, the panel heard from about 20,000 victims and perpetrators of apartheid, granted and denied amnesty to thousands, and published five volumes of testimony.

In the Hall of Classification, visitors can read how four white men on a state-appointed board would determine a South African's race. When someone's background was not immediately clear, a pen was run through the person's hair.

"If the pen fell out, you were 'colored,' " explained Wayde Davy, head of public relations and programs at the museum. "If it stuck, you were black." Under apartheid's social ranking system, blacks were considered the lowest, with "coloreds" afforded a few more privileges.

To reach the rest of the exhibits, visitors are made to exit the building via two different routes and for a short while undergo the experience of enforced physical separation.

"What we are trying to do is have people be labeled and separated, so that they can feel what it was like," Davy said.

Visitors begin by walking up a narrowing, 500-foot ramp along which exhibits depict the history of the migration of people to the Johannesburg region through the personal stories of 20 families.

The displays that follow offer a chronology of milestones in the country's history, including the dispossession of land from blacks and their forced relocation; the rise of Afrikaner nationalism among Dutch settlers and their descendants, and of black resistance to it; the imposition of international sanctions against South Africa because of apartheid; the release of political prisoners; and finally, the nation's first democratic elections in 1994.

"I feel it's a very good thing for the country," Alex Cruickshank, 22, a South African of Scottish ancestry, said as he took in the displays. "It shows people what happened in the olden days, and especially for the younger generation, I believe it is a very good thing educationally."

About 150 pieces of apartheid legislation detailing the plethora of restrictions imposed by white-minority rule are mounted on the walls. Through photos of public bathrooms and park benches for whites only and railway platforms only for blacks, the gravity of so-called petty apartheid is driven home.

"As I was growing up, I did see a lot of it, like going to a public swimming pool and seeing 'whites only,' " Cruickshank recalled. "I actually grew up with it, not knowing whether it was a good thing or a bad thing."

Today, the paint and hardware specialist said he regards racial discrimination of any kind as appalling, and he laments the suffering of his nonwhite countrymen.

"It gets to me when you actually think about it, what happened to the African, the Indian, any color but white. It wasn't a very nice thing," Cruickshank said. "What happened in those days is very heartbreaking."

Visitors Find Exhibits Hit Close to Home

Fikile Mhlambi, 53, a black tour consultant, felt that heartbreak as she viewed an exhibit titled "House of Bondage," which includes the text and photos from a book of the same name by black South African photographer Ernest Cole.

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