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 MondayReuse content