Because everything happened so fast I didn’t have enough time to learn about things to do in South Africa or about the history and culture of the place. I knew the basics: that the country dealt with the policy of apartheid, that Nelson Mandela was the president at the end of 90s and his popularity all over the world didn’t stop even when he retired, that in 2010 South Africa hosted football World Championships. But what I learnt there, mostly about the apartheid, was like a slap in the face and something my mind couldn’t understand no matter how hard I tried… Even if the times of this cruel policy are long gone the tension is still widely seen and felt. I’ve myself witnessed couple of unpleasant situations that had a racist background – I observed it with a jaw-drop and I felt so powerless that I could do nothing about it… Fortunately the majority of people I’ve met weren’t like that at all!
During my time in South Africa I tried to learn as much as possible about its uneasy history. I know every place has its own issues but I tried really hard to understand what was happening in South Africa for big part of XXth century. Now I’m definitely much smarter but still I can’t fully wrap my mind around all the apartheid issues. I was lucky to visit 3 museums in South Africa that covered the topic really well and that I think every visitor there should get to see them in order to realize that the country is not only about the beautiful landscape, that it also hides some dark pages in the recent history…
District Six Museum, Cape Town
District Six used to be a residential area in the center of Cape Town. Used to as in the 1970s, due to the apartheid regime, around 60.000 inhabitants were forced to move out from the site.What was a lively neighbourhood is now an unimproved land, haunting in the middle of this beautiful city.
The Museum isn’t very big but it’s guaranteed you’ll spend at least one hour exploring it and learning about the area. The ground floor is covered in the big map of the District Six – old residents marked where their houses used to be and wrote some personal notes about the place. The place is full of old street-signs, small items that belonged to the community, personal stories of the life in District Six. Big boards explain the history of the neighbourhood as well as about the demolishion.
Visiting the Museum was one of the most moving experiences of my South African trip. I just couldn’t understand (and still can’t) how suddenly such a big part of the city can disappear and how so many people, more than in my hometown, have to move away, for no reason at all. I don’t even want to imagine how they must have felt and wat a traumatic experience it must have been for them…
Hector Pieterson Museum, Soweto
Not far from Vilakazi Street in Soweto, where two of Nobel Prize winners used to live, this interesting museum is located. It’s named after young boy, 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who had lost his life in the Soweto Uprising in 1976. He was one of the 176 people who died there (however some sources say about as many as 700 fatalities) but certainly the most symbolic one – the powerful picture showing his death is one of the most known of the apartheid regime.
I must admit that prior to my visit in South Africa I didn’t know anything neither about the Soweto Uprising nor about Hector Pieterson. And it was such a big part of the country’s history! On 16th June 1976 around 20.000 high school students began protests as the answer to introducing Afrikaans language in the schools – eventually it turned into big riots that were strongly condemned by international community and eventually lead to the end of apartheid regime. Now 16th June is known in South Africa as a Youth Day.
I spent around 1 hour in the Museum and still felt I didn’t have enough time to explore it properly. There were lots of screens that were showing the history of Soweto Uprising and I wish I could see properly every single movie. I was truly moved by the determination of all these young people who have decided to stand for their rights, how brave they were – it almost brought tears to me eyes. I just kept thinking how I’d behave in such situation and I honestly can’t give the answer…
Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg
The most important museum of all, showing and explaining all about apartheid. Room after room it’s a journey from the genesis of the regime, through it’s peak and eventually to its collapse and to South African freedom. Big part of the exhibition was shocking to me and left me speachless for a long time. I tried very hard to understand what have happen to South Africa for all these years but failed.
I will never comprehend what the insecurity can do to the human’s mind – that’s where it all started, in a group of people who weren’t sure of their position and talked others into their concept. It lead eventually into the struggle and suffering of innocent thousands whose only fault was their skin colour. To get the feel of the times each visitor is assigned to a “white” or “non-white” entrance (I ended up in the second one). I found this slightly uncomfortable that I’m allowed / not allowed to use this and that. But it was just the game, so how must have the reality felt for all these years?
The Museum also displayed a big exhibition about the life of Nelson Mandela (it was 1.5 week before he passed away) which was a good learning experience as to be honest I didn’t really get the whole cult of him. Most of his life, during the apartheid regime, he spent in prison, isolated from the world. But every battle need to have a hero and a symbol and such was Mandela to the fights with apartheid. Recently I read a very good book about him that made me understand in a big way him and the newest history of South Africa but I still feel it’s all too much for me to comprehend… (the book is available only in Polish – Wojciech Jagielski “Trębacz z Tembisy”)
Note: it’s forbidden to take pictures in Hector Pieterson Museum and Apartheid Museum hence I only managed to take this only one with my cell phone.
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I do like visiting places with difficult history: Balkans, Caucasus, South Africa, Israel. Maybe it’s because I come from the country that had to struggle a lot too, maybe there’re some other reason I haven’t found out yet. During these visits I try to learn as much as I can about what have happened there, how it affect random people – these are not easy topics and they usually leave me devastated for a long, long time. But I do believe it’s worth talking about them so it will (hopefully) not happen again…
Do you visit “difficult” places too? Would you like to go to South Africa?
If you think of visiting South Africa or just want to read more about the country take a look what else I wrote about it!
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