The structure of memory: Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum
by Sean O'Toole
"You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on - into the dustbin of history." - Leon Trotsky to the Mensheviks, 1917
History is a dustbin. It can also be a theme park. Or the truth that lurks at the end of a dusty road. This being South Africa, history is probably best understood as a magical interplay of all three elements: dustbins, theme parks, and a dusty road that leads to a monument in northern KwaZulu-Natal, one that offers an oblique point of entry into Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum.
At the outset some readers might object to history and its architectural mausoleums being the subject of an art review. What, succinctly put, is the relevance of the Blood River memorial, or the Apartheid Museum at Gold Reef City, especially to an art audience? One need only refer to photographer David Goldblatt's book The Structure of Things Then for telling hints and suggestions.
Or contemplate the fact that artists have always proven themselves remarkably useful as artisans in the employ of state ideology, investing ideals as they do with verve and meaning. This fact holds true for the present as much as it did in our troubled past, which is why the Blood River memorial is an important stop-over for anyone intending to visit the Apartheid Museum.
Blood River, an event marking the historical defeat of Dingane's army on December 16 1838 by a trek Boer army, is incontrovertible. Its memory is etched somewhere deep in the memory of all South Africans. Nowadays we celebrate this turbulent start to South Africa's history of conflict as Reconciliation Day. Not so long ago, however, it was celebrated quite differently. Of all the skewed apartheid monoliths that commemorate this older way of remembering things, the original Ncome River battle site remains the most chilling.
Situated at the dusty end of a 20 kilometre jaunt along a quiet farm road, between Dundee and Vryheid, this beleaguered historical site offers visitors gainful insight into issues that continue to animate South African history in the present tense. It also offers a counter-narrative to that suggested by Apartheid Museum chairman Dr John Kani, especially when he says: "South Africans are coming to terms with reconciling their past while looking forward to their future."
This might be true of things in that gilded palace south-west of Johannesburg, but certainly not on the grassy plains of rural South Africa. Fenced off behind a rusting wire fence, the "original" Blood River battle site is marked with a humble stone cairn. Surrounding this point are a host of monuments, each executed in the apartheid style of cast iron and bronze, granite and utilitarian concrete. Sculptor Coert Steynberg's 1938 ox-wagon monument bears an unmistakable likeness to Pretoria's Voortrekker Monument, and greets visitors at the entrance. Further into the site, 64 bronzed, cast-iron wagons offer a menacing insight into former times. Unveiled in 1971, each wagon in the laager weighs an immovable eight tonnes.
Pitched beyond all of this white nationalist dogma, across the deep donga that the Ncome River has cut into the earth, lies the 'Zulu Monument'. A crude appellation, one taken from a sign appearing in the precincts of the old Nationalist bunker, the new eNcome Monument stands as an uncertain symbol of reconciliation. In comparison with the hubris that spawned its predecessor, it is a modest structure, one that oddly enough includes a series of maudlin paintings. Reportedly painted by a local white farmer's wife, one of these idealised portraits depicts a traditionally attired Zulu family floating in the clouds, the Drakensberg looming in the background.
Petty art snobbery aside, the museum is noteworthy for its design, and is constructed in the shape of an attacking, horned Zulu phalanx. It squarely confronts the old museum. A budget-constrained attempt to reclaim the dignity in the Zulu attack, the new museum succeeds in communicating a refreshing and insightful perspective on this once epic clash of opposing cultures.
As three lone concrete struts that pop from the muddy depths of the river rudely suggest, the separation between these two cultural edifices is far more than a literal divide. My guide at the Zulu Museum claimed that the bridge between the two sites remains unfinished due to ongoing "negotiations". Far-right white extremists had threatened to blow up the structure, a simple walkway that would logically connect the two museums and undo the need to travel three kilometres from the old museum to the new Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology special heritage project.
So much for apartheid history having played itself out. Indeed on December 16 2000, convicted murderer Barend "Wit Wolf" Strydom presided over a ceremony to launch an apartheid bible at the old monument. Strydom, who was sentenced to death but later granted amnesty for killing seven black people in Pretoria in 1989, claimed the new bible reinstated apartheid references stripped from a 1933 version of the bible. The year preceding this, a group of 40 men and women celebrated December 16 at Ncome River with a banner proclaiming 'Apartheid is Heiligheid' ('Apartheid is Holiness').
"Cultural awakening comes not when one learns the contours of the master-narrative, but when one realises - thanks to a teacher, a book, or the disruptions of an unpredicted historical event - that what one has always been told is incomplete, backward, false, a lie. There is nothing more liberating; there is nothing that leads more surely to the need to question whatever is presented as fixed, certain, inevitable. And it makes sense that the means to such a liberation are not always where one has been taught to look for them." - Greil Marcus, The Dustbin of History, p28
Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum, situated south-west of the city centre, was constructed "to illustrate the modern history of South Africa". It being Johannesburg, the bulk of this history has been fairly judged to have started in Johannesburg with the discovery of gold, and all the consequences this spawned.
The history of the museum itself is in some senses as remarkable as the subject matter it strives to portray. Constructed on a seven hectare site adjacent to Gold Reef City casino and fairground, the Apartheid Museum represents the social responsibility component of Akani Egoli's casino licence tender. Opened in November 2001, the museum is owned by Solly and Abe Krok, the shrewd twins said to have made their mint selling toxic skin-lightening creams to black women during apartheid.
The idiosyncrasies of a privately funded, public memorial that serves as a mandatory conscience foisted on a pleasure-seeking public makes it easy to be cynical about the whole enterprise. It tends to render the squat bunker-like structure constructed from plaster, concrete, red brick, rusted and galvanised steel less inviting. This is a pity. Only the most hardened of cynics, having at least visited the museum, would deny that the Apartheid Museum is proof of a massive groundswell of labour. Eighty million rands' worth.
In developing an exhibition narrative that aims to "graphically and objectively animate [a] dramatic story", the Apartheid Museum has drawn upon a multidisciplinary team of curators, filmmakers, historians, museologists and designers. Christopher Till, the former executive director of the Johannesburg Biennale, is the museum's director. Phillip Bonner from Wits, the dramatist and writer Zakes Mda, Stephen Hobbs and Kathryn Smith of arts consultancy The Trinity Session: these are just some of the big guns who contributed towards a finished product now open to the general public.
Structured following a linear profile, the museum employs documentary photography, text, video and a host of artefacts to weave together a complex and sometimes racially segregated narrative. The splintered narratives, spread over 6 000 square metres of interrelated spaces, are almost unavoidable; this is apartheid history we are viewing, a collision of competing ideals and exclusionary visions.
For the general visitor, the journey starts predictably enough at the ticket office. But there is a twist: visitors are issued randomly assigned tickets. White or non-white, it's luck of the draw, and depending upon the racial classification, you enter by one of two entrances. I drew white, and entered through my allotted door. The path through the first exhibition space is flanked on both sides by cages containing rows of old-style identity documents, blown up for perspective. On my left, members of a stolid looking white race stared blankly back at me. Those on the right looked unremarkably the same, except for the fact that they were once racially classified as coloured.
Entering a museum commemorating racism on the basis of an arbitrarily assigned racial ticket might read like a rather prosaic ploy - but it works. The unhinging experience is given further punch by an invisible audio narrative; taped interviews with people reminiscing about apartheid times. Upon exiting the caged display one is confronted by a large-scale photograph depicting the stern gaze of the men who composed the racial classification board. They are confronting you.
This introduction to apartheid, via its pseudo-scientific filtration system, would not have been as effective were this first display followed by another exhibit cataloguing more of the same. To their credit the designers cleverly opted for a reprieve. Exiting the first display one must walk up a gradually inclined slope. This open-air path leads to a resplendent vantage above the museum, allowing one time to reflect upon both the literal and metaphorical value of the upward trek.
This walk is not without its physical distractions, and is interrupted by freestanding mirrors. These randomly placed mirrors feature life-size colour cut-outs of people headed in the same direction. Up they go, young and old, a full colour spectrum of citizens in everyday garb. Somehow your reflection gets in there too. Small recesses en route allow one to reflect on early cave paintings, impressionistic markings describing the first encounters between our country's rival cultures.
But this is all mere diversion, an experience designed to prime one's expectations before the full assault presented downstairs. Upon entering the main body of the museum, one is officially welcomed by a guide. It is explained to you that the first presentation on the agenda is a film, a short introductory movie that offers a brief history dating back to 1652. The museum must fill in the gaps for its international audience.
Awaiting the movie screening one is free to walk about, study the details contained in the large-scale photographs in the lobby. The most striking are the early portraits of Johannesburg; and of the mineworkers, neat rows of anonymous men seated blacks below, whites above.
"There's a recovery of history in all sorts of ways, a retelling of history to include parts of South African history that have been largely overlooked before." - Philip Bonner, Professor of History, University of the Witwatersrand, and Apartheid Museum consultant
The Apartheid Museum relies heavily on original artefacts and apartheid relics to construct its master narrative. In the waiting hall, adjacent to the cinema, a host of personal objects are contained in glass cases. These belong to the individuals depicted on the mirrors up overhead, and serve to personalise the memory of apartheid. Which is quite different from the large map also in the foyer area, a map of Johannesburg circa 1897.
The map offers a bird's eye view of apartheid, its demarcated zones clearly illustrating that the white town-planners envisioned a racially segregated city right from the start. The fledgling neighbourhoods are entitled Native location, Coolie location and Kaffir location.
Further on into the museum there are other objects too, a real yellow Casspir, even an old orange, white and blue flag. There is also a room with 121 nooses hanging from the ceiling, the names of the countless individuals despatched to a premature death by this system of execution inscribed on a remembrance wall.
Not all the objects in the museum are authentic. Commenting on the use of reproductions of petty apartheid signage, signs that once barricaded parks and public benches, lavatories and entrances to railway stations, Mail & Guardian columnist John Matshikiza wrote: "We all remember how those signs looked - even if it is only from photographs reproduced from Drum magazine and documentary films like Last Grave at Dimbaza. Here, however, the signs are brand new and have been unfaithfully reproduced in rather more attractive type fonts than the apartheid state could be bothered with."
I asked curatorial consultant Kathryn Smith why the curators had not obtained original examples. A shortage of artefacts, she pithily replied. History, it would seem, is sometimes a little too quick to consign itself to the dustbin, its contents irretrievably lost. The museum had to rely on photographs when constructing their replicas.
Ms Strickland, a fictional character in Ivan Vladislavic's remarkably prescient short story from 1994, The WHITES ONLY Bench, probably best summarises the objection some viewers might have at viewing reasonable facsimiles of history. Ms Strickland, after discovering that one of the employees in her fledgling apartheid museum is manufacturing a replica "WHITES ONLY" bench, exclaims: "This is a museum, not some high-school operetta. It's our historical duty to be authentic."
But what exactly is authenticity? And does an article claiming historical authenticity necessarily bring the viewer any closer to the truth of apartheid, more so than would a lesser replica? Such questions could serve as the basis for intractable arguments, or gross excursions into pedantry. I am inclined towards neither option. Apartheid was a mean and vicious system. I don't think it is necessary that we have authentic artefacts to remind us of this fact. The photographic record of the exiled photographer Ernest Cole is capably sufficient.
The sadly deceased Cole captured a superlative visual record of 1950s and 1960s black South Africa, his lens depicting life on the street, in the mines, at a train station and inside Baragwanath Hospital. Cole's photographs are at once harrowing and insightful, his black and white Magnum style of reportage pictures offering a personal account of the affronts that were once hidden out of sight in the filing cabinets of apartheid history.
What further distinguishes Cole's work is his lateral understanding of everyday life under apartheid. Take for instance his photographs of domestic workers, black ladies dressed in work finery. Reproduced directly from his banned book House of Bondage, published in 1967, the photographs are captioned as follows: "On duty, the servant dresses in an unpretentious cap and apron. She must never go bareheaded during work hours. On off hours, however, she may dress as fashionably as she can afford." The force of time has done little to erode the veracity of Cole's suburban portrait. It could just as easily be 2002 we are looking at.
"History is written as we speak, its borders are mapped long before any of us open our mouths, and written history, which makes the common knowledge out of which our newspapers report the events of the day, creates its own refugees, displaced persons, men and women without a country, cast out of time, the living dead: are you still alive, really?" - Greil Marcus, The Dustbin of History, p17
The Apartheid Museum's master narrative ends around 1994, at the time of South Africa's first democratic elections and the achievement of a constitutional democracy. The organisers of the Apartheid Museum have, however, been judicious enough in conceding that there may be fissures and cracks in their telling of "the triumph of the human spirit over adversity". The museum has therefore provided space for temporary exhibitions, and called upon the interaction and support of the public.
This temporary exhibition space, more so than the superbly presented permanent collection, will probably face the hardest challenge taken on by the museum. It is the challenge of reclaiming history from the dustbin, retrieving it so that it can be reinterpreted, updated and made sense of for current and future generations. After all, the phenomenon that the Apartheid Museum has so ardently tried to pin down in its glass boxes and wire cages is still with us, evolving and mutating outside the museum's circus of halogen lights and video narratives. It is just up to someone to continually remind us of this fact.
Apartheid Museum, Gold Reef City, Northern Park Way, Ormonde
Tel: 011 496 1822
Hours: Tues - Sun 10am - 5pm