Trail Of The Unexpected: Johannesburg's new apartheid museum charts decades fo violence and repression

But is it really history? Some of South Africa's citizens don't think so!

My black taxi-driver throws me a sideways glance when I tell him I'm heading to Johannesburg's new Apartheid Museum. Isn't a museum simply the past preserved in aspic and displayed in cabinets? Then there must have been a mistake because he assures me that, in the newly democratic South Africa, the legacy of racial separation lives on. Whites still have most of the wealth, he says, furiously. They drive the flashiest cars, enjoy the best health care and live in the safest areas. It's a thought I keep with me as I approach the museum, a brutish stone and concrete fortress built in the style of a 1970s British council estate. Only minus the charm.

If you had to live there it would be awful, but as a metaphor for the stony-faced might of the old regime it could hardly be more apt. As if that weren't scary enough, once you've stumped up your 20 Rand (£1.50) entrance fee, there's another fright. The museum's admission system randomly designates visitors into "white" and "non-white" categories, with a different turnstile for each group. Not an entirely original device I know, but as bewildered hand-holding couples are arbitrarily forced to split up and walk through separate entrances, they endure an unsettling glimpse of apartheid's poisonous divisions.

Much of what follows inside is conventional but grimly absorbing, as giant murals, texts and old television footage chart the decades of repression and violence. It's all there in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail from the election of the National Party in 1948, through the Sharpeville massacre and Biko's murder, to Mandela's ultimate victory in the first free elections eight years ago. And just when you think you've seen it all, there's a small room beyond the solitary confinement cell, which is empty apart from the dozens of ropes dangling from the ceiling. Each one is a noose, representing the fate of dozens of executed freedom fighters. It's grisly but effective symbolism.

In a city still more noted for its street crime than its tourist attractions, the museum is a boon, and an ideal accompaniment to the popular Soweto township tours. What makes curator Christopher Till's achievement all the more impressive is that his work is clearly still "in progress". The official launch isn't until the autumn, when President Mbeki is in town for the Earth Summit, and by then it's hoped one or two temporary exhibitions will have been added. Yet, as I take advantage of the museum's magnificent view of the city skyline, it strikes me that, for all its comprehensive research, something is missing.

Where were the displays showing apartheid's unacknowledged but most profound casualties – the stunted hopes, broken dreams and suffocated ambitions of its victims? I remember my angry cabbie telling me that when he grew up in a township, the pinnacle of achievement for a black man was to become a teacher, while women could only aspire to nursing. Like millions of South Africans he's still living with the effects of that regime, and bitter about the enduring limitations it has placed on his life.

So if you want a comprehensive history of apartheid by all means go to this excellent museum, but if you want to understand why it's not just history, make sure you travel there by cab.

The Apartheid Museum is at the junction of Northern Parkway and Gold Reef Road, Ormonde, Johannesburg (00 27 11 309 4700, www.apartheidmuseum.org); it opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday

News
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
News
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
Sport
footballDoes Hodgson's England team have an identity yet?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss