Apartheid Museum: South Africa’s Determination to Remember its Past

By Hume Johnson, PhD

Tribute to Mandela erected at entrance to Apartheid Museum

Today, I cried as I walked through South Africa’s Apartheid Museum; so moved I was by the striking presentation (including temporary and permanent exhibits and audio visual works), of the rise of fall of the Apartheid regime – a system of racial segregation enforced through legislation by the white-only National Party which ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994. Opened in 2001, and acknowledged as the preeminent museum in the world dealing with 20th century South Africa, the Apartheid museum takes you on an emotional journey through the vicious and brutal apartheid regime under which black South Africans were forced to exist.

Experience Apartheid Upon Entering Museum

segregation sign at entranceBlacks in South Africa were not were considered to be citizens in a real sense, and lived a life of complete segregation from whites. On entering the Apartheid Museum, you get to experience first hand what it was like living under the Apartheid system. Each visitor is given entrance tickets randomly selected according to race (whites and non-whites). At the white entrance, visitors can view the national identity card that were distributed to white South Africans. This card had their names, photo and ID number and clearly indicates that they (whites) were citizens of South Africa.

passbook - womanHowever, at the entrance dedicated to non-whites, one can view the identity documents or dompas (translated from Afrikaans to English, it literally “dumb pass”) that black South Africans were required to carry when outside their homelands and designated areas. On the passbook for blacks, it carried their name, photo and tribe. Interestingly, the line that indicates citizenship was left blank. This is significant because it underscores the idea of blacks as not part of the nation.

The Exhibitions

Quotation - The white man as Master
This quotation is just one of many put forward to justify apartheid. It is erected at entrance of Apartheid Museum.

Walking through the museum, the exhibit seeks to capture seminal points and events in South African history, from the Land Act of 1913 which confined non-whites South Africans to designated areas across the country to how Apartheid was enforced and maintained, the struggles mounted by Nelson Mandela and others against this oppressive regime to its final demise as a legal system of government with the release of Nelson Mandela, who emerged as the symbol of the struggle, in 1990 and his election to President in 1994.

Mandela and dompas
Mandela preparing to burn his dompas in the Defiance Campaign in the 1960s.

Included in the museum display are video interviews of Nelson Mandela, and other key persons in the struggle against Apartheid who were forced underground, and later imprisoned; weaponry that was used by those who were resisting the Apartheid and those charged to uphold it; the recapture of the Rivonia trial of the key figures of the struggle against Apartheid and a exhibit dedicated to Nelson Mandela. There is also a cinema showing the confrontations between the regime and the people in the streets of South Africa.

As I  walked through the museum and watched the brutality meted out to the people, I felt a deep sadness and despair. The struggle faced by blacks in South Africa was immense. The dompas was a key tool in maintaining segregation. Blacks could be thrown in jail simply for not having it. The museum ably captures how devoid of empathy and compassion the period was. I couldn’t help but reflect on how painful and difficult life must have been living on such a repressive system in your own country. I could not help but me moved by the suffering by my fellow Africans.


Liliesleaf Farms at Rivonia, South Africa.

Overthrowing such a system must’ve required careful and covert planning and strategic actions. So I had to visit Liliesleaf to see how this was done.  LiliesLeaf was the nerve centre of the liberation movement. In the early 1960s, Liliesleaf was an old farm property which served as a safe house for many leading figures of the liberation movement. People from diverse backgrounds with a common vision met here to plan, debate and discuss political policy and military strategy for  South Africa’s emancipation from an oppressive apartheid regime.

The covert operation and  underground activities of Liliesleaf were ultimately exposed.  In a dramatic police raid on July 11, 1963,  members of the military arm of the ANC, the MK high command, were captured while meeting to discuss a contested strategy to overthrow the government. The raid took them completely by surprise. The police seized hundreds of  liberation struggle documents. They had in their words, ‘hit the jackpot’. For the apartheid government, the event was a coup. For Nelson Mandela and the liberation movement, it was a crippling blow.

Many of those arrested at the raid on Liliesleaf were later tried at the famous Rivonia Trial and sentenced to upwards of 25 years in prison. The events of Liliesleaf and the subsequent trial of all the accused changed the course of South African history, and thrust South Africa’s struggle for democracy on the international stage.  Today Liliesleaf recounts these conversations, and is truly a journey of enlightenment.

Lest We Forget: South Africa’s Commitment to Remember its Past

Liliesleaf and the Apartheid Museum are important repositories of the South African story; its struggle for justice, equality and freedom.  Designed to recollect and memorialize the past, they serve to connect the South African people to their history, and permit them to always hope, always fight for a democratic future. Arthur Chaskalson, Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of South Africa (2001-2005) puts it best when he said: “We need to record our history… to heed the lessons of the past, [lest] we slip back into practices that contradict the ideals that underpinned the struggle for freedom and justice in our country”.

lililieaf 2, entrance
The entrance to Liliesleaf in Rivonia, now a museum dedicated to the struggle to apartheid.

I was thoroughly impressed with South Africa’s Apartheid Museum, and Liliesleaf. Recounting the past is essential. I therefore could not help but lament the absence of such monuments designed to memoralise the Jamaican struggle against British slavery and colonisation, and the continued fight for equality, peace and justice in our society; the absence of  visual national markers that recollects our people’s triumph over oppression, celebrate our symbolic culture and many contributions to the world. In the words of Jamaica’s national hero, Marcus Garvey: “If we don’t remember the past, we are bound to repeat it”.

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Dr. Hume Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island, USA


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  1. Dr.Johnson thank you,Some want us to forget or pretend that genocide never was inflected on our people,Some of our Jamaican people want to pretend it never happened,because it is too painful for them,and some are still in a “state of mental slavery,”they love the “slave masters,than themselves or their own BLACK PEOPLE. Self-hate.Thank you for reminding us of what Marcus Garvey said,”If we don’t remember the past we are bound to repeat it”We must protect,respect,love and cherish each other otherwise we dishonor our fore parents’ suffering and death.”Emancipate ourselves from mental slavery,none but our selves can free our minds”. I am so proud of you as a strong black woman,who tells it just the way it must be told.Thank you.

  2. “This is significant because it underscores the idea of blacks as not part of the nation.”, ironic since they were in their ancestral homeland of hundreds of thousands of years, smh.

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